My Frenemy, the Sun

I have always loved being outside. The beach. The pool. Skiing. Hiking. Eating (what can I say, I love a good patio). Sunny days, cloudy days, whatever, wherever, whenever. Outside is better than inside on almost every occasion. 

As a kid I was on the swim team. In high school this translated into playing water polo and doing what I could to contribute the Dos Pueblos swimming and diving team. 

At sixteen I became a lifeguard and swim instructor. A total upgrade from my first real job as a cashier at Taco Bell. 

On weekends we'd go to the beach or hiking. Some of the many perks of being from Santa Barbara. I know, living right up to the California girl stereotype.

Since I guess that wasn't enough of the beach and the sun, we also went on many vacations to Hawaii. 

As an adult, while I traded my job at the pool for a job in an office and on the campaign trail, my love of being outside never ceased. From beach vacations to Hawaii and beyond to generally taking the patio seating option at restaurants, I was always finding any excuse to be outside, in the sun.  

I have not consistently been awesome at reapplying sunscreen, but it's not like I avoided the stuff. It's in my moisturizer and make-up every day. I was generally pretty good about putting it on when I knew I will be outside for any length of time, but of course, not always. 

Due to all of this sun exposure, my nordic roots and coloring, and my mother's voice in the back of my head, I have always been religious about going to the dermatologist. Every year. I thought that it would serve as a good early warning system for skin cancer. That if my less-than-perfect sunscreen efforts failed, at least the doctor would find any offending moles or spots early. 

We will never really know if by putting on more sunscreen throughout my life or avoiding the sun in general I could have avoided getting melanoma at 37. Sun exposure is just one reason why people get melanoma. In fact, so far the doctors have yet to identify a primary site (i.e. the mole or other place) of my cancer. This happens in 5-10% of cases. This is a scary thought, especially for people like me who assumed regular skin checks were a good early warning system.*

What I do know is that my relationship with being outside has fundamentally changed. The sun has become my frenemy. 

I still love sunny days. Who doesn't?! The light automatically makes me smile. Sun makes the world sparkle. Sun puts a smile on many faces. Sun is good for the soul. In this sense, the sun is still my friend. 

The sun is also my skin's enemy. Since I cannot become a hermit, and I still do need some vitamin D, this means I have become the world's #1 consumer of SPF 50 beauty products. Thankfully there are many, many great options to choose from that don't make me feel like I belong in a beach club instead of the grocery story. I do not pass go without applying a couple of layers of protection on any part of my skin that will be exposed to the light. I also reapply products throughout the day. Every 80 minutes if I am out and about. It has become part of my daily routine. 

I've traded my heals and business attire for a new uniform of long trousers or jeans, long sleeved shirts and gloriously flat shoes. Often I add a scarf (gotta protect the neck) And, as regular readers of this blog are aware, a hat has become a must. This change in wardrobe has taken some getting used to, but it's been a nice excuse to shop!

I tend to avoid going outside for any length of time after 10am and before 6pm. I still run errands at indoor establishments, go to yoga, get a pedicure, but I make sure I stay away from windows and cover up. Patio seating is only an option if it's in the shade or after sundown. Beach vacations suddenly sound like less fun unless, of course, I can get a UV protected cabana. I do love the beach. 

It's remarkable how many small changes avoiding UV rays requires. Adjusting to this new relationship with the sun and being outdoors during the day has taken some time. Over the last seven weeks I have evolved from never wanting to go outside, to learning how to comfortably protect myself. I hope this will become even more routine. 

Part of surviving cancer is embracing change, in every form in which it's required, big and small. Waking up every day and adapting your plans to how your body feels. Scheduling your life around treatments and visits to the doctor. Avoiding UV exposure like it's the plague. Managing your appetite and evolving taste preferences. Rethinking your plans for the near term and allowing yourself to still dream about the long-term, despite the uncertainty of it all. 

It seems like a lot to deal with when I think about it, write about it. I've found it's best not to ponder it too much or look at the situation in its totality. It's overwhelming. Instead, I try to recognize the need to adapt, grieve the loss of how things once were, make the adjustment, and look forward. One day, one step, and one sunscreen application at a time. 


*Please don't let my story discourage you from going to the dermatologist. You should go every year, even if you are not fair skinned. Ninety to ninety-five percent of melanomas can be seen on the skin by a dermatologist. And, melanoma is only one type of skin cancer, there are others, which are not as aggressive, but still need to be dealt with quickly. Also, please wear sunscreen.