I have had a 29-year long love affair with the sun.
Not smart, I know. I'm fair-skinned and freckled and a strawberry blonde, but if there is a lake, a pool or a beach, I want to be on it. I'm safe about my sunning, though, and have been since I was small, always lathering up with SPF 30 or higher when all of my friends with olive-complexions were cruising with baby oil.
Despite my diligence, I decided last year after much persuasion from friends and family, that I really should start going to the dermatologist on a regular basis just for check-ups. I used to go to the dermatologist when I was a teenager, only then I went to be treated for acne. Now, I would be asking the doctor to give me a full body scan for skin cancer. Wow, I thought, what a difference ten years makes.
The first time I went, my doctor checked my entire body, burned a small spot off my leg that turned out to be nothing and asked me to come back in six months. When I returned for my second visit of the year, I asked her to remove a small spot on my back that I’d had forever. I wasn’t worried about it, I just didn’t like the way it looked. She gave into my vanity, admitting that it had the potential to be something dangerous and removed it. And just like all of the others, she sent it off to a lab to be tested.
A few weeks later I got a call from the dermatologist’s receptionist asking me to call the office. I forgot to call back until she called me again and stressed that it was important that I get in touch. I still wasn’t nervous, but I called the doctor’s office from my work phone.
“Hi,” I said cheerily, “My name is Stephanie and I’m calling about my test results.”
This statement evoked laughter from my colleagues and friends standing in close proximity who I'm sure began immediately diagnosing me with some weird rash or gross STD. I probably should've waited to place this phone call in private.
The nurse told me that the spot they had removed came back “abnormal,” which did give me pause, especially since this spot was only removed because I had asked her to remove it. Had my vanity actually paid off in favor of my health? She advised me to schedule a time to return to their office to have some of the area around it removed.
Still, I wasn't terribly concerned. In fact, I was half paying attention when we decided on another appointment date in January, Day 102.
Day 102 rolled around, and I headed to the doctor’s office, fulling intending to pop in and pop out and go about my day as planned.
I went in, put on the super attractive paper robe and watched my young, cute, friendly dermatologist's demeanor change as she held up the test results to show me.
Her voice was not unkind, but it was concerning. She said a lot of things, many of which I didn't understand, all of which are a blur to me now. She tried to explain the different levels of skin cells, and what "abnormal" really means. I quickly realized that this appointment, this procedure I was about to go under may have been a much bigger deal than I thought. Then she asked me, "Do you have a history of melanoma in your family?"
My heart began to race and the room suddenly felt warmer. I don't fully understand melanoma, but I know enough to know that I don't want it. I shook my head no, and barely squeaked out, "I don't think so. Not that I know of."
To be clear, this was not melanoma that we were dealing with. But she explained that had we left this spot untreated, that's exactly what it could've developed into. I reminded her that the only reason she removed this spot was because I didn't like the way that it looked. Should we then just go head and take all of the spots that I don't like?
“Not today,” she said. “But from now on, if I see something that looks suspicious, I’m going to remove it.”
I considered that, and an image of my skin full of indentions and craters flashed into my head.
She told me that she was going to scrape the area around the area she had already removed (gross, I know). When she was done, I'd have 6-9 stitches that would have to be removed in a couple of weeks. And then she looked at me and said nicely, but matter of factly, "Your scar will be significant. Probably around three centimeters."
I took a deep breath and nodded my head as though I understood.
I did understand what she was saying, as in I knew what the words meant. I was not at all prepared, however, that I would be leaving her office so scarred, both physically and emotionally.
I could feel my anxiety level rising. The exact vanity that had led to her removing this spot on my back in the first place was now rearing its ugly head again as I became concerned for the new blemish that would soon take its place.
What about bathing suits and backless dresses? A three centimeter long scar?
She had me lie on my stomach on the table so she could get to work on removing the spot. My usually bubbly and gregarious personality sort of shut down as I tried to process the last fifteen minutes, and I said very little. I think she could sense that our conversation had scared me and she tried to take my mind of the fact that she was cutting me open by asking me about my Christmas and New Year's. I thought about telling her about the polar bear plunge and meeting Crazy at the Widespread Panic concert, but I refrained. I just didn't have the energy.
When she was finished she told me to sit up on the table and she told me very honestly, and frankly, that my relationship with the sun was going to have to change. Not that I couldn't go outdoors and enjoy the activities I've always enjoyed, but I cannot be irresponsible and I can't not think about it.
She asked me what I had planned for the rest of the day, as if she assumed I'd be headed home to rest. I was confused. I was upset and emotional about it, but I still thought I would go work out and then head to work. I was surprised nine stitches warranted such a need to take it easy. She even wrote me a prescription for pain killers.
She responded, "I think you might want to take it easy on the gym for a couple of days." She asked me if I sit at a desk for work, which I do, and she said she guessed that would be fine.
Damn. One half-hour dermatologist appointment later and I have a 3-centimeter gash on my back, I need to start staying out of the sun and my daily activities are now in question.
She finished by telling me that I would need to wash my stitches with soap and water, put some antibacterial ointment on the wound, and change the bandage everyday. With her instructions, I decided to kick the day into the next level of melodrama, by actually thinking to myself, "I live alone. Who is going to do that for me?"
When the procedure and her instructions was over, I left the doctor's office quickly, sat in my car, and burst into tears. Like swollen face, big tears, red face, hideously ugly crying.
I could get emotional thinking about it now, but I'm truly not sure why I was so upset. Was it about the scar that will forever be on my back? Was it the fact that I know this procedure just the first of many that will likely follow? Or was it that this was a wake up call that I needed to stay out of the sun, and that I really don't want to?
I don't know if it was the fact that the store she works in was nearby or that I needed her, just her, to comfort me in that moment, but I drove over to where my friend Kyle works. I stormed into her store, tears streaming down my face and said to her co-workers, "Is Kyle here?"
They looked at me, compassionately, "No. She doesn't come in until later. Steph, are you ok?"
"No, I'm not," I cried. And I told them what happened.
They listened and reassured me that it was okay for me to be upset about it, but I should also feel relieved that the doctor was able to take care of it before it got worse. Not meaning to, I think I scared them into going to the dermatologist. Way to go, Stephanie, when you're sad and anxiety-ridden about something, best to take everyone down with you.
I left the store and raced over to Kyle's house where I completely caught her off guard, barging into her house and upstairs to her room where I collapsed on her bed. I told her how sad and scared I was while we watched "Justice Files."
I knew that Kyle would sympathize with the fact that I know getting this upset about a scar, on my back, is, in the scheme of life, and my health, stupid. But I'm 29. And I'm sad about it.
I knew she'd tell me if the scar was really bad and she'd know how to successfully cover it with makeup so that no one would ever know it was there.
And I knew that she'd be the person to tell me, "At least it's not on your face."
I started to feel better.
I considered keeping it to myself, but she'd been so supportive, I figured she deserved a laugh. So I confessed to her my crazy thoughts about not having anyone to care for my stitches and how that added to my emotional distress.
She laughed. And then she said, "Well, I will do it, or maybe you could walk next door and have your landlords do it."
Yikes, I thought, and then I laughed. I'd have to figure out a way to handle it on my own, and I did.
My brother Jeff, who has the same coloring as me, has always said that always said it’s not a matter of when the two of us get skin cancer, it’s simply a matter of when. While I try not to think about that, I always knew that a day would come when my relationship with the sun would have to change. I just don't think I expected that day to come so soon. And I'm not really sure how to reconcile all of it: my now-scarred back, my desire to make wise decisions about my health and the fact that I'm a young, active person who loves the outdoors and still craves the sunlight.
Day 102's thing I've never done before was facing the reality that my skin will be a source of concern for me for the rest of my life, and not just whether or not it's tanned to perfection and wrinkle free.
Not exactly the kind of new thing I wanted to make a part of this project, so I'm posting pictures of me with a tan and my favorite scenes of the sun to make myself feel better about it.
I am who I am.