Avoiding cancer by the hair of my skinny-skin-skin

I was nineteen years old the first time I was diagnosed with skin cancer, my dermatologist called me on Christmas Eve to give me the news and the day after Christmas I had two chunks of my forehead taken out, the larger leaving a small, round scar on my hairline. Since then I’ve had cancery spots cut out two more times, one biggish one from my armpit, the other from the ball of my foot. Every dermatologist I’ve seen has told me that the combination of my fair complexion and genetic make-up means I will most likely get melanoma again before I turn 40. If I’m careful we may find it early on, before it’s even a “stage,” and can treat it by biopsy without having to resort to major chemo or radiation.

Thirty years ago a large research hospital did a longitudinal study to try and determine if there was a genetic marker for melanoma, both sides of my family were involved in that study, both with really high incidents of skin cancer diagnoses. For example: my oldest brother had melanoma cut out of his back when he was 13, my first spots came off when I was 19, my other brother was in his mid-twenties when he had pieces cut off his face. My grandfather died from melanoma, so did an aunt, and countless cousins have had questionable or even cancerous spots cut out. My dermatologist will re-measure and photograph every single mole during my visit, and then compare to last year’s size, color, and location. If anything has changed or looks at all iffy, he pulls out the scalpel and slices that stuff right off. At least I am aware of my inheritance and can take preventative measures.

Okay, so I am genetically predisposed to melanoma. Now what?

Casper the ghost_getting all tan

Well, for starters I make damn sure I don’t double down on an already shitty hand of genetic of cards. I haven’t had a real sunburn since I was in my teens, I haven’t had a tan line in more than a decade; not from a swimming suit, not a gradient on my arms, nothing. I am ridiculously careful with sunscreen application, but mostly, I just stay out of the sun. This does not make me a very popular candidate for a beachy vacation or a pool party, I won’t waltz around in tiny swimming suits, I won’t play beach volleyball, I won’t lounge pool side with giant sunglasses trying to perfect my tan. Instead I stay in the shade, I cower by the umbrellas, I cover up from neck to toes because that is easier than slathering on sunscreen every 2 hours. I keep track of the moles I can see and if anything changes I call my doc for a consult.

At this point I have a love-hate relationship with my skin. I mean, I am thirty-three and my super careful behavior is finally starting to have some visible benefits (besides, you know, the “no cancer this year” thing). I have really great skin, my wrinkles are almost nonexistent and I am routinely mistaken to be in my early twenties, sometimes, even a teenager. (I’m not sure if that is still a compliment, or at what age it no longer is a compliment, but I’ll take it.) I will probably always look younger than my actual age due to my vampire-like actions throughout my teens and twenties, and that’s kind of awesome. (My love of unicorns and Grumpy Cat and baby elephants does not in any way contribute to an adolescent persona. Promise. Ahem.) However, my skin is also really, really sensitive to the sun, I can’t walk (6 houses down the street) to the mailbox in the afternoon without sleeves or sunscreen because my skin literally starts to sting and itch. It’s like I’ve developed an actual allergy to the sun, it is uncomfortable for me to be exposed for more than two or three minutes. I’m sure my pal Darwin would have some Serious Evolutionary Thoughts about this, but for me it is just fascinating, and also a little annoying. I’m on my way to becoming one of those cave fish with bulgy white eyes and translucent skin. But hey, at least Harriet McCaveFish will look like a 22 year-old cave fish, not a 39 year-old one. Small victories, people. Small. Victories.

I’m a little fuzzy on how, exactly, I will be able to survive an Arizona summer, which stretches for eight or nine months of over-90-degree temperatures and nary a cloudy day in sight. (And, like, four months of 100+ degree temps…please kill me now, please!?) I guess I’ll continue to do what I’ve always done, stay inside during the day, stay in the shade if I absolutely must go outside, and spend a hefty percentage of my paycheck on sunscreen and linen pants. I’m such a barrel of fun, you guys. I mean, seriously. Come visit me! You can hang out by the pool, alone, while I work on my Cave Fish eyes. It’ll be grrreeaaaattt!!

Harriet sig

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34 thoughts on “Avoiding cancer by the hair of my skinny-skin-skin

  1. Oh boy living in AZ is definitely going to be a test if you need to stay out of the sun, but I have heard that because it is so hot, most people stay inside in the AC anyway. I am terrified of skin cancer because I have Irish skin that burns and then tans. I have been much better more recently about applying sunscreen but I think back to the horrible burns I used to get in college when I would forget to put on sunscreen and then burn the hell out of my skin- NOT GOOD. I’m glad that you have been so good about staying out of the sun and hopefully you never have an issue again.

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    1. Um, yes. Arizona is gonna be tricksy. I think I probably could get really tan skin, you know, if I wanted to, I just don’t. When I was a kid I was on the diving team and over the course of the summer got pretty dark skin and super white hair (I’m already naturally pretty platinum blonde). But at this point my skin has lost any build-up of melanin, so I’m just pasty white and will stay pasty white. Sigh.

      Also, you’re right, summer in Arizona is the time to stay inside!!

      xox

      On Wed, Mar 30, 2016 at 8:37 AM, Feisty Harriet wrote:

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  2. Pasty white club whooooooo! (high five, secret handshake)

    I’m a freckled redhead. They say to check your body for irregularly-shaped brown spots. This advice does me no good, because I am naturally covered with irregularly-shaped brown spots. Still, one has to be careful. In my advanced age, I have noticed a few spots that give me pause. I have one on my arm and one on my leg and another in an unmentionable place that I should probably do something about at some point. (Soldering iron works wonders for suspicious spots.)

    In the great outdoors, I simply trowel on the sunscreen like I’m bricking a wall. The good stuff too, the stuff that has the consistency of toothpaste. I ignore the strange looks and the fact that I smell like a beach party all the time.

    Also, I haven’t aged perceptively in about fifteen years. There’s something to be said for a sun-free existence. Trust me when I say your 20-year reunion will be awesome when you get to gloat about your youthful appearance to all the wrinkly oldies. (In my case, the full head of hair with nary a trace of grey was also a bonus) It makes the night oh so special.

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    1. There are pictures from my freshman year of college where I look almost identical to how I look now. And yes, that is quite satisfying. Lol.

      Yay for the PWC!

      xox

      On Wed, Mar 30, 2016 at 8:47 AM, Feisty Harriet wrote:

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    1. Yes. And probably a pony to cart it around for me. Do you think my health insurance will reimburse those expenses as preventative care!?

      xox

      On Wed, Mar 30, 2016 at 10:21 AM, Feisty Harriet wrote:

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        1. Well, if they could hand over the recipe for turning sun into dollars I’d happily perfect that alchemy! πŸ™‚

          xox

          On Wed, Mar 30, 2016 at 3:49 PM, Feisty Harriet wrote:

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  3. How about permanently shading a part of the back yard so you know you have a spot you can be outside safely? Doesn’t solve the heat problem, but might make you feel less like a cave fish..also, Target’s collaborative Merimekko line includes swim leggings, and I immediately thought of you because coverage! I don’t know how practical it is in the Arizona heat…that’s a whole nother question

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    1. Yes! Actually, the part of the patio where we hung out all weekend will most likely get a bunch of climbing grapes on the side of it so it will be cool(er) and leafy and green all summer long. Grapes get planted in the fall if all goes well! Yay!

      xox

      On Wed, Mar 30, 2016 at 10:52 AM, Feisty Harriet wrote:

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  4. I am super-fair skinned (despite my dark hair) and have a lot of moles. I need to get them checked regularly as well (so far, nothing found though – knock on wood!). I am sorry that you’re predisposed and have to be so supercareful, but I think in the end your careful behavior pays off…. I wouldn’t mind hanging out in the shade with you at all πŸ˜‰

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    1. Icy drinks in the shade for everyone!!

      Most of my natural moles are irregularly shaped, irregularly colored, and raised. Basically, everything that makes dermatologists give pause…my doc is pretty careful and conservative, but he has left a lot of them in place because it would be so painful and–at least at this point–unnecessary to shred up my back removing them all. He just does a LOT of comparing of measurements and photos year-to-year, and if they change, they come off. It’s such a dance. Gaah.

      xox

      On Wed, Mar 30, 2016 at 10:55 AM, Feisty Harriet wrote:

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  5. Oh girl… I can’t say I’m nearly as meticulous as you but I do get the same thing when I am out in the sun. Ever since college if I am out in the sun too long or without adequate protection it is like I break out into little whiteheads (SO GROSS) all over my face and unprotected body. Ughh. Needless to say I try to avoid that at all costs.

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    1. Ya know, the more I hear about women (particularly) who avoid the sun on purpose the more confidence I feel. Our society is so conditioned to view tanned bodies as the beauty ideal, and I just won’t ever be that way. My legs are almost translucent at this point, with a slight blue-ish tinge. I have started using a super light looks-like-a-silght-tan spray when I wear skirts because I started getting really uncomfortable with how glaringly white my legs were. Of course, my version also has SPF in it, because, cancer. Sigh. So, I’m not quite embracing the Super White Skin All The Time look.

      xox

      On Wed, Mar 30, 2016 at 11:01 AM, Feisty Harriet wrote:

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  6. I think you need to develop the best hat collection ever. You already have the best shoe collection ever, so it’s the logical next step.

    On a more serious note, that sounds terribly scary. I’m pretty pale, and I try to be careful, but I do forget. And I have had my share of really unfortunate sunburns. If I had your genetics, my frequent carelessness would have stopped a long time ago.

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    1. I have hardly even worn a hat that I liked. Is that terrible? I think I have two that I wear while I hike (it’s easier to wear a hat than put sunscreen all over my scalp, my super white hair does very little to protect my head while hiking), but the big floppy sunhat? Yep, haven’t embraced yet. Although, if anything will urge me to do so 10 months of summer sun would be it.

      xox

      On Wed, Mar 30, 2016 at 1:23 PM, Feisty Harriet wrote:

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  7. We will fit in together at the beach just swimmingly πŸ˜‰ (ba dah chh). Being covered from neck to ankle on a daily basis keeps me from burning to a crisp, so I take the small victories too. I’m also fair skinned, but so far no melanomas or even many moles thank God, mostly freckles. That Irish skin tho.
    Are we making t-shirts for the pasty white club or what?

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      1. Of course we swim hahaha. Types of swimwear varies from “burkini” to something like a scuba suit and a long tshirt and swimmers cap. We are not limited in life by our attire πŸ˜‰

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  8. Let me know at what age looking way younger than you are is or is not a compliment. I’m just a few years behind you – but definitely a thought that has crossed my mind, as I’m in the same boat as looking way young. I try to think of it as a compliment, but sometimes it gets a little weird…. Thank God for a few curves, wouldn’t want to totally be considered a twelve year old πŸ˜‰

    Good for you for taking care of your skin! Definitely important, especially with the family history. Dang adulting and being responsible… but yay for health? πŸ™‚

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    1. Yes, yay health. Or, maybe yay wellness? With the issues I’ve got I’m not sure I’d call myself generally healthy, but I at least I know it and take precautionary steps? Dah. Semantics-schemantics.

      xox

      On Thu, Mar 31, 2016 at 3:54 PM, Feisty Harriet wrote:

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  9. Oh my gosh. That is the worst! I’m super impressed with your diligence of staying out of the sun and wish you luck on your first AZ summer. Some say it’s not that bad, but I say it is. It sucks. And nothing anyone says will change my mind about it. Haha.

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    1. THANK YOU! See, this is what I think is the truth, I don’t believe people who say “oh, it’s not THAT bad.” Liars. All of them.

      xox

      On Tue, Apr 5, 2016 at 10:08 AM, Feisty Harriet wrote:

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  10. Pale girl high five!!

    I’ve had 2 spots cut out, my dad has had dozens cut out, and my mom has had at least one formally diagnosed melanoma. AZ sounds scary.

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    1. Arizona IS scary! What is a cancer-prone whitey-white girl like me doing living in the Valley of the Surface of the Sun!??!

      Imma hibernate all summer long, it’s the only solution. Which means I must stock up now on brownies and ice cream and leftover Cadbury eggs…you know, for hibernation. For science. IT’S FOR SCIENCE, dammit!

      xox

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  11. It’s nowhere near as serious with me but I also have sensitive skin, moles that need to be watched, and a tendency to burn easily. Next time I’m in Arizona I’ll hang out in the shade with you πŸ™‚

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