I’m sure by now you have heard that it is Shark Week, right? The Discovery channel is airing dozens of slots of shark-related programming, and I have found myself DVR-ing episodes that go into great detail about shark sightings, shark attacks, and all other subjects in which sharks and people do not mix. I cannot NOT watch this stuff! Am I afraid of sharks? Yes, yes I am. The thought of them gives me an uncomfortable tightness in my stomach. Seeing footage of gaping mouths of teeth–even though they are safely contained in my TV–makes me shudder. I have nightmares about being chased by a shark, or having one use me as a chew toy. That Bruce character in Finding Nemo freaked me right out. I have never seen Jaws and I think it is safe to say that I never will. I have to look away when they show the “scary” or “gruesome” parts during Shark Week. On public television. Aimed at educating children. “Scary” to me basically means anything where teeth or jaws or blood is involved, which means I spend most of any given program with my face buried in my hands. Four year olds see more of Shark Week than I do. Have I ever met a shark? No. Have I even seen one in the flesh? Um, no. Not really. Baby-sized ones that are sometimes kept in an aquarium, yes, but never a “real” shark, the kind that could chew your arm off. Does this make my fear of sharks slightly irrational? Uh, yes, probably. I live in a landlocked, desert state; the chances of me coming face-to-face with a hungry Great White Shark are minimal/non-existent. I am SCUBA certified, but I have never gone diving in the ocean. In fact, when hanging out on an ocean beach I rarely get in the water at all. I don’t really care for salt water in my eyeballs/on my face, and the chance of coming into close quarters with a) clingy seaweed, b) stingy sea creatures, or c) sharks, is more of a risk than I am willing to take. I’d much rather hang out on the beach with my nose in a book, carefully tucked up under an umbrella with a sundress covering me shoulders-to-my-knees and the rest of my body completely slathered in SPF 85. Sexy, no?
Ha! No. Not really. Well, not in the way that any advertisement, fashion or beauty magazine published in the last 80 years would lead you to believe.
The thing is, do you want to know what scares me more than sharks? (And bobble-head dolls, but that is another post entirely.)
My sensitive dermis baking under sweet, sweet, sunshine.
Like many children, I had white-blonde hair as a kid. Unlike most of those children, when I grew up my natural hair color never really darkened and still hovers in the distinctly “platinum” part of the color wheel. My skin is a fair, creamy white and mostly freckle-free. My foundation color is “parchment” for heaven’s sake. I’m a pale person. And unlike many people who share my coloring, I don’t make any efforts to darken my pasty-white skin. I have never been inside a tanning bed. I have never “laid out” or gone sunbathing. I am terrified of the idea of getting “that healthy glow” or even “a little color.” I don’t know if I can properly convey the fear I associate with my own skin being a “healthy”, “sexy” bronze shade, or, frankly, a shade that can be described by any color not resembling printer-paper.
You probably think I am overreacting. I’m not. I’m not being irrational, or even overly fearsome. Allow me to explain:
About 25 years ago the University of Utah–a premier research institution, particularly in genetics–did a massive study to see if there was any genetic linking to skin cancer. (The short version: there is.) For several years they studied hundreds of families, choosing ones who had multiple cases of melanoma. My mom’s family was chosen. My dad’s family was chosen. As a result, all of us kids were tested; I was 3 but I still remember that day. My oldest brother was 13 at the time and the researchers were shocked–SHOCKED–to discover a chunk of skin cancer on his shoulder. He was the youngest person to ever be diagnosed with skin cancer; it was such a big deal that it made the cover of the Wall Street Journal, and his case was the subject of professional medical conference keynote addresses for years. THE COVER OF THE WALL STREET JOURNAL!! It
was is a Big. Freaking. Deal. Yes, this was twenty-five years ago and in the years since there have been more cases of skin cancer discovered in younger children (a trend that is disturbing enough on it’s own), but please understand that this very real, tangible fear of inherited skin cancer has been ingrained in me–and for good reason–for the last two and a half decades. I am a carrier of the melanoma gene. I inherited it from both my mother and father. While I have always had regular check-ups with my dermatologist, have gone back to the University of Utah for follow-up studies, and I have been vigilant in sunscreen application; I am still scared.
Ten years ago I had two moles taken off my head in a routine check-up, one came back positive for melanoma. I was 19. I hadn’t had a sunburn or even a tan line in at least six years. But there it was. Cancer. On my face. Can you imagine your 19-year-old self? Now imagine her going to the doctor by herself to be scrutinized head to toe and everywhere in-between for questionable moles. Imagine the doctor carefully cutting off a few tiny bits of her face because they looked “a little suspicious.” Now imagine 3 days later–Dec. 23 2002 at 4:30 pm, to be exact–when the doctor calls her to tell her that the moles were malignant and cancerous and “I am having my office staff come in from holiday on Dec. 26, first thing in the morning to cut out some more of your face. We need to make sure we get it all.” Imagine that 19 year old girl sobbing into the phone, thinking she is far too young to have to deal with this kind of news. (I still get choked up when I think about that phone call. The fear was palpable then, and even now it makes me breathe faster and my chest become tight.) I am lucky, my dermatologist caught my case really early and was able to cut out the offending pieces of my face, his plastic surgery skillz left only one small scar near my hairline that is hard to see, even if I point it out. I didn’t have to go through chemo or radiation or spend months of my life in a hospital. Yes, I am lucky; or more accurately, I had been vigilant my entire life, luck really had nothing to do with it. Even so, it was still far too close a call for me to be willy-nilly with the sunbathing and beach time. Like, ever.
I wear sunscreen every single day, even if all I’m doing is walking from my house to my car to go to work. SPF 30. Every day. No matter what. (Except that one time I forgot, I am still kicking myself for that. In fact, just thinking about it gave me a knot in my stomach.) Outdoorsy activities will have me bump up the SPF to 45 or 65, with 85 on my face and shoulders. (I don’t want to hear any arguments about how “oh, anything after SPF 30 doesn’t make a bit of difference.” I. Don’t. Care.) (And who made you an expert on hereditary melanoma anyway? I’d like to see your degree and credentials.) (Also, to all former boyfriends–you know who you are–who cruelly and publicly mocked my beach wear, with full knowledge of my genetic misfortune and medical history, I hope you get testicular cancer and have to go through life as a One-Balled Wonder.) (And to the irritatingly, insipid women who make fun of my summer sleeves and long skirts–especially those claiming to have also had skin cancer but not caring about getting sunburned–you are ridiculously stupid, shallow and naive. And douchebags. Sadly for you, getting a tan won’t eliminate any of those qualities. *smirk* I hope you have gross, permanent sun spots on your face and hands by the time you’re 30.) (/rant.) (Man, it feels good to finally get all that off my chest!) (/parentheticals.)
I have been told by my doctors–ones who are experts on my skin, genetic skin cancer, and my family history–that even if I live in a cave for the rest of my life with absolutely no sun exposure whatsoever and develop those creepy, beady-white, cave-dwelling-eyes, I will still contract melanoma again by the time I’m 40. Cancer. Again. Sometime in the next 10-15 years. No matter what. On the upside, my team of dermatological experts tell me that my lack of tanning will make me have fewer wrinkles and clearer, smoother skin as I get older. So I suppose when I’m 40 and going in for Round Two (or three) of having skin cancer removed from my body the medical staff will think I’m only 29. Hey, at least I have something to look forward to! So, while you and your blessed olive skin can prance around the beach or pool in SPF 4 (now with coconut oil!) and a teensy little bikini without a care in the world, I’ll stick with the SPF>45 and a drop cloth. I am not olive, or brown, or tan, or even beige. I am pale, the color of parchment, and always will be. And my bikini has never seen the light of day. True story. It has taken itself–and me–out for some night swimming on several occasions. But obviously in a pool and not the open water, because–honestly, don’t you ever watch the Discovery channel?–night time is prime feeding time for large, carnivorous fishy creatures who are drawn to white, glowing, reflective surfaces (see: heidikins’ entire body) and WHAT ABOUT THE SHARKS!?!)
18 Comments so far
Leave a comment