06 June 2007

Sunshine on my shoulders

...gives me cancer...

Okay, we all know those aren't the words to the song, but with all due respect to John Denver, this is a PSA.

I am a fair-skinned girl, and got what my parents always called "the redhead's skin" in the family. I am not a redhead, though my brown has always carried a significant tinge of it. I am also light-eyed. I don't tan. I burn. I always have. My younger siblings, all of whom are light-eyed, and two of whom are blonde, always tanned. I pretty much accepted my fate and didn't lie out in the sun, although I've always lived an active lifestyle, so a certain amount of sun exposure (and commensurate burning) was the norm. Pretty much the worst sunburn I ever got was when I was 14, and my cousin and I fell asleep on the beach at Ocean City. You didn't have to tell me twice that it was a bad idea, and when sunscreen became widely available, I embraced the use of it, enthusiastically.

About 20 years ago, I got a call from my mother, and she told me that the ophthalmologist I'd seen as a child had recently died. I was a bit puzzled as he'd been newly in practice when I was 12, so I figured he had to be a fairly young man. Indeed, he was only 48, and he'd died of melanoma. He was an avid bicyclist, and the Arizona sun had taken its toll.

Shortly thereafter, thinking back on that Ocean City sunburn, I made an appointment with the dermatologist to have some of the really large moles scattered over my body removed. The biopsies all came back normal, which was a relief.

Within a few years, both the spouse's thesis advisor and another Ph.D. candidate had cancers removed from their faces. I started buying the spouse protective sun gear and high test sunscreen for his field work. He is blonde and light-eyed, though with a somewhat more olive skin than mine.

When I am outdoors, gardening, exercising, what have you, I wear sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses (did I mention that one of my dearest friends from high school had cataract surgery at 36? It was linked to sun exposure.) Even with protective gear, I've noticed a subtle darkening of my skin. Nonetheless, I wasn't prepared for the doctor's words last December.

"I don't like the look of that mole on your stomach. Let's make an appointment to remove it."

"My stomach hasn't seen the light of day in about 30 years," I blustered. "And besides, that mole has been there forever."

My doctor is relatively imperturbable. "Make an appointment," she said.

A week later, she was happily sawing out a chunk of my stomach, and nattering cheerfully on about how fortunate I was that she did cross stitch, because I should have a really nice scar.

I spent the next week or so grumbling about the hideous stitches in my belly, feeling heavily put upon. When I went to have the stitches out, she told me the cytology had shown precancerous changes in the mole. While I didn't have cancer yet, that mole had been quietly making the move. She assured me the margins were clear so no further surgery was indicated. For *that* mole. There's another one my back she's anxious to remove.

Nice scars are a relative thing. This nice scar is about an inch long and an unpleasant red. It's straight and even, and frankly, ugly. It itches, even months later. I am grateful, however, it isn't anywhere visible like my face. But relatively nice, especially if you've ever seen some of the surgery done on people with melanoma.

We don't know what my mole would have become had it been allowed to grow up and fulfill it's cancerous destiny. Squamous cell carcinoma, maybe, or perhaps the big M. Part of me doesn't want to know, but part of me does. What else is lurking in my body, ready to spring out without warning? Will I spend the next 40 years having bits of me cut off to stem the tide? And I've been careful compared with most people I know.

A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with a lovely young woman, a physically lovely young woman, who mentioned her bad habit of visiting tanning beds. I started in on the lecture, but her glazed look told me she'd heard it all before. So I showed her the scar on my stomach, and said, "Imagine that on your face."

So yeah, here I've resorted to scare tactics. If that isn't enough, though, allow me to appeal to your vanity. I am the oldest of four siblings. The two younger girls, 5 years and 9 years younger than I am, are sunbathing veterans. The accumulated sun damage is writ large on their skin.

Put us in a room together and just look at us. You'd think I was the youngest by a long shot.


For the record: Dooce's recent announcement that she is having another skin cancer removed was the impetus for this entry. I'm always up for scaring sunscreen onto people's bodies.

Go listen to some good music: "Sunshine On My Shoulders" from the album John Denver's Greatest Hits by John Denver.