If Norah O’Donnell’s kids ever complain about applying sunscreen, showing them the three-inch-long melanoma scar on her back is a “great reminder” to get them to lather up.
The CBS News anchor, 44, is a year and a half removed from her skin cancer diagnosis around Thanksgiving 2016, but its still at the top of her mind, especially at the start of summer. She revealed the news of her diagnosis and recovery with PEOPLE in March 2017, in the hopes of helping others avoid the same experience.
“I’ve learned so much in the past year and a half since my diagnosis, and I think at the top of that list is that early detection and prevention saved my life and it can save other’s lives,” O’Donnell tells PEOPLE. “I tend to be a very private person, even though I’m on television, so it was not easy to talk about it publicly. But my dad does happen to be a preventive medicine doctor and I thought that sharing my story can probably help somebody else.”
O’Donnell says that she frequently hears from people who said they decided to get a skin cancer check after reading her story. Some of her coworkers at CBS even said that they had a doctor check for the first time in their lives, and had concerning moles removed.
“I think that is one of the most rewarding things,” she says. “If I can help somebody that’s the best thing I can do, to use the small platform I have to bring awareness to skin cancer prevention.”
And the mom of three says she’s constantly taken aback by the statistics she learns about skin cancer.
“More people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other cancers combined,” she says. “It’s just stunning to think about that. But it’s preventable and it’s very treatable if it’s caught early.”
Now, as a skin cancer survivor, O’Donnell gets a check every six months, and has upped her skin protection methods.
“Before I would just slather up with sunscreen, but now I wear a sun shirt and a wide-brimmed hat,” she says. “And I have three young children, so I spend a lot of money on sunscreen. That’s what changed — I spend a lot more money on sunscreen and sun shirts, but it’s all for the better.”
And O’Donnell wants people to stay away from tanning beds, something she admits to doing as a young woman and now regrets.
“I did that when I was younger and it’s really, really dangerous,” she says. “I had a sense that it wasn’t good for you, but I didn’t have a sense of how dangerous it is, and I don’t think most young women do. They think they can just go for a couple days before prom or graduation and it’ll be fine, but when you’re young and you go to the tanning salon it increases your chance of melanoma by 75 percent!”
The keys to avoiding skin cancer, she says, are getting checked and staying out of the sun. Plus, she adds, there’s another benefit.
“You’ll get less wrinkles!” O’Donnell says. “If vanity is a motivator than so be it, because it can save your life.”