Tuesday, March 10, 2009

No fun in the sun

Yesterday I said goodbye (and good riddance) to number 25, the 25th mole on my skin that I've had surgically removed. Now the waiting game begins, waiting for the results of the biopsy, a game I've had to play since I was 14 years old, a game of wondering whether or not I'm a still a winner or if I've finally lost the game after all of these years. It's the game of health versus melanoma, one that my family is sadly all too familiar with.

When I was 14, my mom spotted two moles on my body, one on my stomach and one near my left temple on my head. I knew they were there; they'd been around for as long as I could remember, but being a kid, I didn't know that their scaley, crusty appearance was anything to worry about. By chance, my mom saw me naked that day. I don't think she had in a long while. Once I hit those preteen years, the thought of anyone seeing me naked was horrifying (despite the fact that there wasn't a whole heck of a lot to see). So, the fact that my mom was able to take a good look at me with my birthday suit on was pretty out of the ordinary. Personally, I've always thought there must have been some divine intervention, because I think my mom saved my life that day.

A few days later, I found myself in her doctor's office undergoing a minor surgical procedure to have both moles removed. We found out later that week that the biopsy reports were normal; both moles were just your average joe-shmoe moles, nothing to worry about. Pfew! Truthfully, I didn't exactly know what we were so relieved about. I knew that cancer was a sickness. My mom had had breast cancer a few years before then, but she came out of it just fine. The word melanoma was foreign to me at that age, perhaps even to my mom, too, I think to most people back then, frankly. Skin cancer just wasn't a big concern in the early 80s; no one talked about it or knew much if anything about the disease.

Now, somewhere right around that time, I don't remember if it was before or after that first mole removal incident, my family and I took a vacation to Sanibel Island off of the coast of Florida. What a paradise! Coming from chilly Wisconsin where the weather is less than desirable 8 months out of the year, my family was totally into the tropical island experience. I still remember my dad pointing up to the sky periodically during our visit there and shouting, "Boss! Dee Plane! Dee Plane!" Yes, I must ruefully admit, we were faithful TV viewers of Fantasy Island at the time, and during that vacation on that breathtakingly beautiful island, we lived out our own fantasies of lazy days on sandy white beaches surrounded by nothing but lush vegetation, water, and sunshine.

Until the day we decided to go shell collecting. We woke up before dawn and made our way to the beach in the dark during low tide when shell finding is supposed to be at its best. We walked with our heads down, scouring the beach for miles, finding as many beauties as we could for hours. Finally, somewhere around noon, my mom decided it would be a good idea to put on sunscreen. No, we didn't have any on until that point. And, yes, it was too late. We had been out in the sun for about 5 or 6 hours already and had completely underestimated its morning strength. We sure felt it later though. To say we were sunburned is an understatement; fried is more like it, especially my younger brother and I. Red as lobsters. And in a lot of pain. It was so bad, my mom called the local hospital to find out what to do. After a few sponge baths, we hit the sack for a night of little sleep with wet, cold washcloths over the areas burned the worst. In the morning the blisters had popped out, and we could barely move. So, we spent the next couple of days in the hotel room ordering room service for all of our meals. We eventually ventured out to do a little shopping (the word "beach" was akin to speaking heresy; not one of us breathed a word of it) but were we ever a motley crew to behold. The tops of my hands were burned the worst and I couldn't lower them because it was too painful, so I had to walk with my arms raised and held out, Frankenstein-style. My brother completed the Frankstein picture, as he got hit the worst on the back of his legs, behind his knees, and had to walk with his legs stick straight; any bending caused him great pain. The tops of my mom's feet were her nightmare, so she had to walk around without shoes. My dad, who apparently has great skin, was burned but had no blisters, so he was pretty comfortable. That's the way we made our way around the island for the last few days of our vacation...and how we boarded the plane to fly home...and how we greeted my grandmother who picked us up at the Milwaukee airport to drive us home. I still vividly remember her only words to my mother once she layed her eyes on our family in the terminal: "Oh, Sharon." Now, imagine the worst tone of disappointment and frustration that you can in those words and you'll have an idea of my grandmother's dismay.

My mom still feels guilty about what happened to us during that vacation almost 20 years ago. I've tried to reassure her that we were just ignorant Wisconsinites who didn't know how strong the sun was that far south that early in the morning. Plus, everyone's version of "sun screen" back then was SPF 6. Any higher than that and you felt like you were wearing an iron shield for really no good reason; it was considered "healthy" to have a golden-brown tan on your skin. I definitely thought so; it sure helped my teenage acne, made my blue eyes stand out beautifully, and gave my hair some lovely highlights.

No one knew back then that if you got even one blistering burn before the age of 18, your chances of getting melanoma as an adult skyrocket by 50%. My brother found out, though. At the age of 27, he was diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma; the cancer had spread from a mole on his back to some lymph nodes in his neck. We were all shocked when the results of his biopsy came back, me most of all. After all, I was the "moley" one. Since that first surgical procedure at 14, I visited the dermatologist annually and had a mole removed on average about once a year. Moles are everywhere on my body. I was amazed that I hadn't been the one to get melanoma, that all of my biopsies had come back with good reports.

Luckily, my brother made it through his ordeal, after an 8-hour surgery and a month of radiation treatments, with a clean bill of health. The physical scars of his surgery will always be there, but as for anyone who gets cancer, it is the emotional scars that are probably the most troubling for him. He puts on a strong front, but I think the fear of his cancer coming back is always with him, and the medication he has to take every day for lack of much thyroid activity as a result of the surgery is likely a daily reminder of what he went through and what could strike again at any time.

So, I write this post as a result of a conflict. A few weeks ago, I had an annual check up with my general practitioner. My blood work revealed I have a vitamin D deficiency. Well, duh. I hide from the sun. I fear it. I harbor angry thoughts toward it and what it put my brother through and what it puts me through every year with these ridiculous moles. Despite the fact that my body needs the sun to produce an important vitamin for its health and well-being, the sun is also my worst enemy. Hmmm, the irony, huh?

I also write this post with spring break upon us and the approach of warm weather for us all. Take what I've shared with you as a warning. All of the talk in recent years about skin cancer and the inherent risk about being out in direct sun for any longer than 15 minutes without sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 is true; I know, because my family has lived with the consequences of what can happen if one is not cautious.

Protect yourself...but most importantly protect your babies.


  1. Thanks that is a very good reminder.
    My kids are so fair and blond. I do not burn , but the sure can.

  2. Bravo! I'm so glad you shared your story. I worked in a dermatologist's office until recently. It is so scarey that a small spot on your skin can cause so much damage. My husband is also waiting on the results of more biopsies. He has had two stage 3 melanomas. He takes extra precautions now esp. being married to me. I'm terrified of just what the sun can do. ESP TANNING BEDS!!!

  3. Thanks for sharing the story! I wish I would have listened to my mother when I was young.....

  4. Wow. That is scary. Thanks for taking the time to share your story. It's the hard part about sunscreen... it's easy to not do it, and the consequences are far down the road... but it's never worth the gamble. Thanks for the timely reminder.

  5. Aww, good story to help us think... and learn!!