This picture to the left is me in Jamaica the summer before the diagnosis. I did wear a hat everywhere but I wore SPF 4 most of the time that I worked there. One of those summers, I met some girls from Brazil who had this magic tanning oil. We knew a hurricane was coming in the next day so we thought it would be a great idea to lay out all day and tan since we wouldn’t see any sun for a week. They looked fabulous. I spent the week covered in aloe, cucumbers and taking mineral baths. I’m still looking for a photo of this experience. I’ll post it when I find it.
Part of my story: I have a not so attractive 2 inch scar on my arm from the second surgery to remove a tiny mole. I had little idea. I went into see the dermatologist because my skin had been breaking out due to hormones and my OBGYN referred me. I had never had a body scan to look at freckles so I agreed to get checked out.
The mole on my arm was pretty small. As I learned the ABCD’s of skin cancer: A is for asymmetry, B is for border (irregular), C is for color (changes usually) and D is for diameter (larger than a pencil eraser); I found that mine fit some of the criteria. It was asymmetric, changed color- from skin color to dark pink/brown, and over the years would occasionally bleed and scab.
Unfortunately, I also have, well, pretty much all of the risk factors:
I had two biopsies after this initial visit and was shocked to get a phone call as well as a folder full of information in the mail a few days later that said I had melanoma staged 1. I remember sliding down the wall while on the telephone silent and kind of in shock. I scheduled the surgery soon after and my father drove me there, stayed in the waiting room and drove me home. The reality of it all didn’t hit me until later on. I certainly feel blessed that I had a good doctor that diagnosed it early and that it had not spread to my lymph nodes or anywhere else. So many people are not so lucky.
I grew up with a pool in the backyard, in the neighborhood, a lake house, vacations to the coast, Barton Springs close by, and rivers to go tubing on. And let’s not forget Schlitterbahn! I don’t recall putting on much sunscreen growing up. I can’t blame this on my parents. I’m sure I didn’t want to wear it anymore than I wanted to take my medicine -which explains why I kept taking antibiotics over and over again because they weren’t working- I wasn’t taking all of them. Nevertheless, I remember going to a fancy makeup counter at the mall at 17 and being told I had sun damage, dry skin, and a wrinkle under my eye already. Seriously, 17. I have worn eye cream every day since but I can’t say that I was great about wearing sunscreen until the melanoma scare.
Our culture promotes the idea that tan is beautiful. It makes you look thinner, more fit, more attractive. Who wants to be pasty white? We can call it milky white or peaches and cream to make it seem more appealing but I wanted to be tan like the pretty girls at the pool and the gym and in the magazines. Later on I realized that most of these bronze tanned, white teethed, blonde bombshells were not naturally blonde. They had more melanin in their skin and could handle more UV rays without damage. They didn’t have as many of the risk factors above either. Why did I want so badly to be something that I was not? Why could I not embrace my uniqueness?
It was through this experience that I began to appreciate my differences as a redhead and to take care of what I came to learn were a few of my assets: Many women worldwide, especially in the Autumn season, color their hair the color God gave me at birth. When I was a little girl, my Nana use to take me to the salon and have her hair color matched to mine. What a compliment! I notice more and more people around me wearing color contacts. I was blessed with colorful light eyes. Though I did much damage to my skin the first quarter of my life, I hope that wearing sunscreen and staying out of the sun from my mid 20s on will profit me less wrinkles, age spots, and damage as I age, hopefully gracefully. And when I think I must look tanned, I get a spray tan.
The pamphlets at the dermatologists office say that 90% of the sun damage we accrue in life occurs before age 18. That is a startling figure. Those of you with young redheads in your life, help them embrace their differences and encourage them to protect their skin, eyes, and hair. They will thank you for it when they are older and you may just protect them from skin cancer.
Here are a few suggestions for protecting yourself from sun damage:
**note that it is important to get some sun exposure ~ (walking to and from you car counts) to get vitamin D
-stay out of the sun between the hours of 10am and 3pm when UV exposure is greatest
-wear sunscreen- check your SPF, look for UVA and UVB protection, wear water resistant if swimming or sweating, apply generously, and ideally 20 minutes before exposure, reapply
-wear a hat
-cover up- wear light loose fitting clothing when possible to avoid over exposure