When I was a child, my brother, sister, friends and I spent most of our summers at the local swimming pool. Through the week there were swimming lessons in the morning, public swimming in the afternoon and, on occasion, public swimming in the evening. Between dips in the water we would spread our towels out on the black asphalt, lie on our stomachs and bake in the afternoon sun, trying to see who could get the darkest tan. I have to admit that I was in it to win it. The sun felt good on my skin and in my soul, and I could almost feel my skin darken more and more with each passing day. As a child, I didn’t sunburn so I didn’t have to wait to heal before lying out in the sun again. I didn't get my first real sunburn until I was 16 years old.
When I started my first full time job, I spent my summer lunchtimes walking the few blocks to the park with my sun tan oil, and soaking up as many midday rays as I could. (I loved the smell of my coconut scented tanning oil.) I’d go to the beach in my bikini to make sure every possible inch of me got good and brown – that ‘healthy’ glow. I got a few ‘good’ sunburns in my twenties as the only sunscreen I knew of back then was the umbrella sticking out from the centre of the patio table.
Just before I turned thirty I went to see the doctor…what about, I can’t recall. Before I left the office I happened to mention to her that I had a mole on the back of my right thigh that was so itchy I would scratch it until it bled. On examination she immediately made arrangements for a biopsy. It was fortunate I hadn’t ignored it.
I got the diagnosis four days after my thirtieth birthday; malignant melanoma, the deadliest of skin cancers. I was in shock. It’s not that I hadn’t understood why I had had the biopsy, as I knew she was testing for melanoma, it’s that I hadn’t really believed it could possibly be cancer - that happened to other people…it couldn’t happen to me! So many things ran through my head at that moment that I don’t think I heard half of what the doctor said following the diagnosis. Many people in my extended family had had cancer, most of whom had died, and I thought, “I have cancer, what now? How bad is it? Will I need Chemo or radiation? What will happen to my two young children if I die?” I also wondered how I would tell my husband, whose youngest sister had died of cancer, that now his wife had cancer. I didn’t want him to have to go through that again.
It would be a week before I saw the oncology surgeon and learned what I had in store, and I found myself dwelling on the fact that I had cancer. I had a Halloween party planned for my two young children and their friends to take place in three days time and I didn’t know how I was going to manage it. No matter what I did or to whom I was talking, in the back of my mind I was always thinking, “I have cancer, I have cancer” it was like a mantra…I was obsessed with the thought.
It was Halloween day when I saw the surgeon for the first time and learned my fate was not as dire as I had dreaded; it was stage one. I had never realized the truth in the expression ‘Like a weight lifted off of my shoulders’ until then. I literally felt lighter.
I had surgery a week later in which the surgeon excised a one inch area around the biopsied site and used a skin graft from an adjacent area to cover the wound (Rhomboid flap). I was scheduled to see the surgeon one week after the surgery, and then every three months thereafter for the first year before it was cut back to every six months. I have had three other suspicious moles removed over the years, all of which proved to be non-malignant, thankfully.
It’s funny, for a long time after my surgery, even though I had always gotten a clean bill of health, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I hadn’t had chemo or radiation and I felt that I had gotten off to easy; like I had cheated at cards and won and soon someone would yell ‘Aha! Gotcha! Now pay up.’ I didn’t feel worthy of calling myself a cancer survivor, I felt I hadn’t earned that title. It wasn’t until I heard other cancer survivors speak that I realized I had been thinking about it all wrong. My body had been invaded by a potentially deadly growth. It had been cut into, a piece taken out and a large scar left as a reminder. The sun which I had worshipped all my life was now my mortal enemy. And the fear of recurrence was ever present. Cancer had affected my life in a very real and substantial way.
Now for the part which I know some of you will roll your eyes at…just as I would have back in the day. The preaching.
Melanoma can kill you. Vanity is not worth your life. Sunlight is important for good health, but even a light tan is a sign of skin damage, even after the tan fades the damage remains and builds with each subsequent tan or burn. Not everyone who tans will develop melanoma just as not everyone who smokes will develop lung cancer, but the risk is increased. And if a family member has had it, your chances are, yet again, increased. At the very least it will age your skin and who wants to look older than you should?
Skin cancer is now the fastest growing cancer, and one of the most preventable. More educated minds than mine have done the work and have concluded that the best way to avoid the possibility of skin cancer is to limit direct sun exposure by covering up and using sunscreen of 30 or more. (I personally like the Neutrogena with helioplex, as it is the only one which I have tried so far that feels light and non-greasy.) And eighty percent of UV rays travel through clouds and fog, so don’t forget to cover up on cloudy days. For those of you who believe sun beds are better, all I can say is that some tanning beds expose you to five times the amount of UV rays than the sun and that the World Health Organization has upgraded the classification of UV emitting devices, such as tanning beds, from a probable carcinogen, to a KNOWN carcinogen. Remember, any tan (not from a bottle or spray) is skin damage.
Everyone has free will and can decide for themselves what they are willing or not willing to do to protect themselves. And some people will continue to tan regardless of what anyone says but, as far as I’m concerned, I will cover up and protect the largest organ of my body…my skin. I don’t intend to be the corpse with that lovely cancerous glow.
*This is a great blog, check it out http://blackispink.blogspot.com
*Another melanoma warrior has lost his battle. RIP Uncle Floyd.