Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Wages of Sun

Warning: If you are particularly squeamish about medical stuff, don't read any further. Go watch Matt dancing instead. Even if you do read on, go watch Matt dancing anyway afterward. It will just make you feel good.

If you don't know me "in real life," maybe you can tell from that tiny photo over there ---> that I am extremely fair-skinned. I was a teenager in the 80s, a historical period in which pale was NOT the new tan. I was sure that somehow, if I just spent enough time in the sun, got past that first blistering burn of the season, my pale pink skin would tan. Or maybe at least my freckles would merge, giving the illusion of a tan. I spent nearly every day of the summer at the swim club pool and swam on the swim team for many years. Our summer vacations usually consisted of trips to Myrtle Beach, where my mom would attempt to humiliate me by making me cover up with a t-shirt and zinc oxide, I would balk dramatically, and end up with a serious, painful burn. I would spend the evenings shivering uncontrollably in our air-conditioned room at the Starlite Lodge, somehow puzzled that this had happened again.

Just as an aside, I now know all too well the helpless feeling of watching your beloved child make really stupid choices because after all, they are 12, almost a teenager for crying out loud, and you are just old and you don't know anything. Sorry, Mom.

I shudder now when I remember the days my friends and I spent sunbathing in the backyard in our bikinis (oh, long-lost bikini body, wherefore art thou?), our bodies slathered in baby oil and our hair stiff with lemon juice. I compounded the sun exposure by moving to Orlando for two years in my early twenties, where I could bake in the sun for approximately ten months out of the year.

My dermatologist found the first skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma, thankfully, not the more malignant melanoma) about 11 years ago. I had thought she would freeze it off and the matter would be done with, and was thus surprised at the four-inch line of stitches left on my back. I joked that I would tell people the scar was the result of a sword fight. The doctor, with her gorgeous milky white Irish skin that has apparently never seen a ray of sun, cautioned me that there would be more such scars in my future. I became scrupulous about wearing sunscreen, but the damage was already done.

Today the same doctor removed my seventh skin cancer. And I thought of that saying, "If I can't set a good example, at least let me serve as a cautionary tale." My inclination was to crop this photo because heaven knows no one should have to look at that much of my naked flesh, but I realized that two of the earlier scars are visible at the bottom of the picture. I will spare you the two on my neck, one on my arm, and one on my forehead. They've all been basal cells so far, but I will not be surprised, and neither will my mom who really tried her best, if one of them turns out to be something worse, something requiring treatment more invasive than a bit of slicing and dicing and eight stitches.

Wear sunscreen. Make your kids wear sunscreen.


Mrs. Jelly Belly said...

I, too, spent most of the 80's slathered in baby oil and burning myself to a crisp in search of the elusive tan.

However, I have avoided the sun at all costs for at least 20 years now and even though every single summer I take all kinds of abuse for my paleness, I just don't care. And your post is a great reminder of why.

Mike said...

I totally remember you and your brothers with the zinc oxide. I thought it looked cool, actually, like you were real hard-core beach bums. And, yeah, I totally remember your dad sitting by the pool at the Starlite with a big wad o' chaw, and making those little sausage hockey pucks in the "hospitality suite."