On the 29 November 2016 I got a phone call that changed my life: I had two Stage 1 Melanomas that needed immediate removal. This diagnosis has honestly shaken me to my core, more than I thought that I would ever be affected. I sit here writing this blog post as a way to process what has gone on, with a 9 cm scar on my upper arm and a 7cm scar on my thigh.
You see, I am a lover of all things outdoors. My favourite season is summer and my favourite place to be is the beach.
The sun, the surf, the sand – there isn’t anywhere that I would rather be. I can sit and watch the waves for hours, it is my favourite form of mediation.
The feeling of warmth from the sun on my skin, the smell of salt in the air, the sound of the waves crashing and seagulls flying overhead. This is where my happy place is. So many of my childhood memories involve the beach.
I have my Grandmother's beautiful olive skin. It comes from German heritage. Southern Germany, Basque country to be exact. My mum, brother, uncles and cousins all have the delicious tanned skin as well. We only have to look at the sun and we turn as brown as a berry. My whole life I have had people say to me, “look at your skin, you are so lucky”. I grew up believing I WAS lucky, that having this tanned skin would mean that I would never have an issue with skin cancer. I was brought up to embrace the outdoors, love the beach and to not fear the sun. We weren’t one of those families that lathered ourselves in sunscreen the minute we woke up because ‘the sun is bad’. We were aware of the powerful sun and were careful not to get burnt, but we would spend countless hours playing in the sun. We grew up in the 80’s when rashies weren’t yet a regular feature on the beach, when beach umbrellas were used to keep the esky cool, and when sunscreen consisted of SPF 8 or SPF 15 at best, and to stay indoors between 10am and 2pm was madness because that was the best part of the day. We would smear some zinc across our nose, slap a bit of sunscreen on our body and spend hours swimming, running and playing on the beach. We had a pool at home and we had a holiday house at the beach. Our weekends and every school holidays were spent in the pool or at the beach. That is what we did. EVERY. SINGLE. MOMENT. WE. HAD.
The thought that I would develop skin cancer had NEVER crossed my mind.
Call me naïve, call me stupid, but I grew up thinking I was protected because of my skin. My dad has fair skin, and he burns easily. He has had Basal Cell Carcinomas (BCCs) burnt off and 6 years ago had a Melanoma removed. But I kind of reconciled that in my mind, was because he was the fair one in our family. Born in New Zealand, raised in Tasmania with English skin.
Not me. Born in Queensland, blessed with olive skin and no relatives on the ‘tanned’ side of the family ever diagnosed with skin cancer. Sure I got burnt a few times in my teens when my friends and I would bake ourselves on the beach. But I just thought I would always be fine. Last year was the first time I had had a skin check in 9 years!!!!!!!
This year, when my post winter body was exposed in shorts and singlets, I noticed a couple of spots on my body that looked a little suspect. One was a tiny black freckle that looked a bit raised, and the other looked like 3 light coloured freckles joined together, almost like a birthmark. Both had appeared fairly recently, and I had been meaning for about 3 months to book an appointment. Luckily for me, I called and got an appointment within 2 days (unheard of with my Derm, who is usually booked 12 months in advance). The Derm thought they looked ok, but did a biopsy and sent them to pathology just to be safe. He sent me off with a “See you in 12 months”.
The next afternoon I received a phone call from his nurse telling me I had a Stage 1 Melanoma and I needed to come in for surgery in 2 days time.
I was in disbelief, total denial. Melanoma? Me? Absolutely not! I told the nurse I was about to go away for 2 weeks to the beach and then on an overseas ski holiday, so could it wait until I got back because I was worried the stitches would interfere with my holiday. I’m sure the nurse wanted to reach through the phone and slap me for my stupidity, but to her credit she said she would check with the doctor when he arrived the next morning.
The following morning I received a phone call telling me, I couldn’t leave it and I had to present the following day to have them both removed. I agreed, but asked for the pathology results to be sent to me because there was still a part of me that did not believe what I was being told. I needed to see it in black and white. And there it was in bold: MELANOMA IN SITU (Level 1).
None of it really sunk in until I was lying on the operating table and saw the size of the incision lines drawn on my arm. Holy shit! This was real, and that was a bloody big cut, for a tiny little spot!!!! The enormity of it overcame me and I started to cry. I’m not really sure what the tears were for. Perhaps for my stupidity for spending so much time in the sun. Perhaps for being faced with my own mortality. Perhaps for having two huge chunks cut out of my body. Or perhaps it is all just a part of the process and denial had made way for reality! The very core of my existence, my love for the beach had come back to bite me. It has made me question everything: My relationship with the sun has changed forever. It is no longer my friend, but my enemy.
While I adjust to this new norm, there are quite a few thoughts that pop into my mind. What about my yearly search for the perfect bikini to give me the perfect tan, with the least amount of tan lines? What about my routine of spending 20 minutes in the sun, 10 minutes each side with no sunscreen to give my tan a boost and my body some much needed vitamin D? Vain? Perhaps? But that is how I have flirted with the sun my whole life.
What about my kids? Do we need to become one of those families who lather themselves in sunscreen the minute they wake up?? My relationship with the sun definitely needs a reframe, but I am finding it really hard to work out what that new norm looks like. Will I fear going to the beach or spending too much time in the sun? I hope not, because for me being at the beach energises me and replenishes me. For now the new norm means sunscreen every time I go outside, always wearing a hat and covering up as much as possible. What I should have been doing all along some may say. But for me, the sun lover, this is a big adjustment.
Two things that I am extremely grateful for out of all of this. Firstly, I am grateful that it was caught early enough. I am grateful that when I finally got around to making an appointment that they had a cancellation 2 days later, because if they had told me they had an appointment in 8 months, I would have waited that long. Then who knows what I would be facing. I am grateful that the melanoma was contained and the pathology results came back all clear after the surgery. I am grateful that the biggest thing I have to process right now, is that I had a melanoma removed, and I don’t have to process anything bigger than that. And, I am grateful for the wakeup call this has given me with my kids. We are good with their sun protection, but not great. Leon is much better than me. He was raised in a family that DID lather themselves in sunscreen as soon as they woke up. His Dad never had them in the sun between 10am and 2pm, years before it was part of the public health campaign. Leon has made me a lot more sun aware with the kids, but they have the beautiful olive complexion too, so are fortunate not to burn easily. Because of this, I think I am relaxed about their sun exposure. So I am grateful that I have had this wakeup call and now realise the power of the sun and the importance of protecting my children’s skin. It’ll be a rashie, hat, and sunscreen EVERY time from now on. And for me, well I am still learning to embrace my new look on the beach. The skimpy bikini is out and the sexy rashie is in!
(If you want to embrace the sexy rashie too, check out Une Piece!)