After a bout with basal-cell skin cancer, I resented my fair skin. I needed a new outlook.
My dermatologist turned off the examination light. She looked me over from head to toe, poking at my moles and muttering to herself: "Hmm, don't like that...we'd better test that...that doesn't look good."
I'd had a basal-cell skin cancer removed 11 years earlier and I came back every year like clockwork. I tried not to worry too much, but every year, as my appointment got close, I'd find myself fretting.
This time she said, "From now on you have to come in every three months."
Every three months! At that rate, all I would be able to think about would be skin cancer. She must have read the expression on my face. "Julie, I just want to be careful," she said.
"I'm careful," I told her. "First thing every morning I put on sunscreen and I'm always wearing hats."
"I know," she said, "but it's not only what you do now that matters. Sometimes the damage was done a long time ago. You have four precancerous moles that I need to test."
I cringed. All of us kids were fair-skinned, and I was the fairest of all. Mom used to slather us in zinc oxide (which I did my best to wipe off with my towel when we went to the beach or pool). She'd make us wear these ridiculous blue sailor hats (which I somehow managed to lose).
I wanted to be tan like my friends, dark and exotic-looking, like I'd just returned from the Riviera or something. As soon as spring hit I lay outside wearing suntanning lotion until I turned a brownish red. Sunlight was healthy. Everyone knew that.
One day at the beach a girlfriend recommended baby oil. I flipped over every 30 minutes, like a turkey basting in the oven. I checked the contrast against the white under my bathing-suit strap.
Yep. I was going to be that deep golden tan that the other girls had. The boys wouldn't look at me like I was some kind of pale maiden.
Then I saw myself in the mirror later that day. What a disaster! I had turned lobster red and my skin was starting to swell. That night I bathed in vinegar (my mother's recommendation). I could barely move. It hurt to wear clothes, even.
Then I began peeling. I didn't get a tan. Just lots of freckles. Now, all these years later, I was paying the price.
"Okay," I said to my dermatologist with a sigh, "I'll see you in three months." Why couldn't I just enjoy the sun without covering myself with sunscreen and wearing large hats? It just didn't seem fair.
I waited for my biopsy results and worried. Why was my skin so pale? How had the sun become the enemy? Why me? I asked God. Some people died from skin cancer. Even after my test results came back negative, I kept fretting.
Every sunny day seemed full of danger. I yearned for clouds. Did I dare sit outside on the bleachers to watch my son's baseball game? Was I wearing enough sunscreen? Did my hat spread wide enough? How much protection did I need–SPF 15, 30, 45?
I followed my doctor's instructions on studying my moles for anything suspicious. I made my husband check my back. But none of these steps were reassuring.
Instead, they made me more and more aware of my vulnerability, that I was one of those fair-skinned people in the highest-risk category for skin cancer. And every three months I'd have to go back to the dermatologist. I'd never be able to stop thinking about this.
One morning, while slathering on sunscreen, I asked God, "Why did you make me this way?" Why couldn't I enjoy sunshine like everybody else? Why was I the one who had to be so careful?