I can’t remember much about the phone call. If it came on a Tuesday or a Saturday, if it was sunny or grey outside. What I said or asked in response. I only remember hanging up and crawling into my empty bathtub where I sat hugging my knees, willing tears to come. When my roommate came home I silently shuffled back into my bedroom where I stayed until the following morning. There is no worse phone call to receive than one from a person you love telling you something bad has happened.
The particulars of the day my mother called to inform me that she had melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, are lost in the weeks and months that followed. I can tell you exactly where I was when she had surgery — four hundred miles from where she was being treated at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, sitting at my desk in Washington, DC, feeling incredibly guilty that I was not by her bedside when she came to. I can tell you how hard I started to laugh and cry when my brother called to say that, after getting out of surgery, her doctor asked her to touch her foot then her nose and she tried to lift her foot to her nose. I can tell you what it was like to come home and see a gaping hole where her heel used to be. That it looked like movie special effects and I had to excuse myself to dry-heave in the bathroom.
I can also tell you that I have worn sunscreen every day since that phone call came.
As I was entering high school, Baz Luhrmann’s musical rendition of Mary Schmich’s essay “Wear Sunscreen” was constantly on the radio. I had at least a basic understanding of every line of that song except its main point. Wear sunscreen. That seemed like a nice chorus of sorts, if anything.
I am fair-skinned, needing hours in the sun to achieve any color. The quickest way for me to achieve a golden hue growing up was to go sans sunscreen and, sometimes, to buy a week’s pass at the tanning salon. I wanted to look tan for cheerleading season. I wanted to look bronzed for prom. I wanted a healthy glow because it hid the ever-present dark circles under my eyes.
I did not want to wear sunscreen.
The world made an impact on me and I tried to make my own impact back.
In high school I was still at a point in my life where I felt untouchable. But as I graduated and moved on to college and “adult” life, nearly all remnants of feeling that way were gone. I learned about being blind-sided on some idle Tuesday when I slammed my 1993 Toyota Corolla into the back of a minivan. I learned not to be reckless with other people’s hearts after I stayed with people who were reckless with mine. I keep a box full of old love letters at my parents’ house and I threw out every bank statement that came my way. The world made an impact on me, I tried to make my own impact back and quickly realized that I wouldn’t live forever and I was not invulnerable. But, I still laid out in the sun for hours at a time with no sunscreen. And, after I turned twenty-six, when I started to notice that I colored after only ten or fifteen minutes out in the sun I was overjoyed, not worried. I thought Finally my skin is ready to accept the sun’s rays and stay tan! rather than recognizing the damage that had been done to my skin.
After my mother’s diagnosis I went for my first full body skin exam to make sure none of my beauty marks or moles were cancerous. Thankfully, they were not. The dermatologist advised me to have a yearly check because of my family history and fair skin. She also ended the exam by asking “And you obviously wear sunscreen every day…right?” By that point, I was able to honestly answer yes.
According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, skin cancer is the most common of all cancers, afflicting more than two millions Americans each year. Skin cancer is also the easiest to cure, if diagnosed and treated early like my mother’s was. When allowed to progress, skin cancer can “result in disfigurement and even death.” Mayo Clinic recommends reducing your risk of skin cancer by limiting or avoiding exposure to UV radiation and checking your skin for any changes. Risk factors, like having fair skin and living in sunny and high-altitude climates, are important to keep in mind as well.
My family and I were happy to hear that the doctor believed he had removed all traces of cancerous cells during my mother’s surgery. She continues to go back for check-ups and doesn’t spend any extensive time outside in the sunlight. I continue to apply a layer of lotion with broad spectrum sunscreen during my morning routine. If I’m going to be anywhere in a bathing suit, I slather myself head-to-toe with at least SPF 30.
Like so many lessons we learn in life, they often come from personal experience. Unfortunately, some lessons have to be learned in more difficult ways than others. I know not to try to balance my coffee, my purse, and my cell phone because I always spill the coffee. No real harm done to anything other than my white shirt and maybe some contents in my purse. Learning how important it is to put sunscreen on each day came at a much higher and scary cost: my mother’s cancer diagnosis.
I wish that I had listened to Baz Luhrmann earlier, but, life isn’t always that simple. I read articles like this one, saw specials on television about how damaging sun exposure can be and how important it is to wear sunscreen, but I ignored all of them. It’s easier to not be concerned about something that doesn’t directly affect you.
But, to borrow some wise words: If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.