This is the story of an inside job.
I was a sun worshipper. I spent much of my youth on a vinyl chaise lounge, redirecting stray rays with a foil sun reflector. Hour after hour, I basted in a baby oil and iodine rub like a rotisserie chicken. It was not until I became the mother of children with translucent skin that I purchased my first tube of SPF 30. I tried my best to protect their fair flesh, although occasionally I missed a spot, marring them with a scarlet tattoo and a public record of my maternal incompetence.
As for my own protection, well, I used sunscreen sparingly. I viewed SPF 30 like a total eclipse of the sun. Desperate to avoid looking pale as the moon, I became obsessed with self-tanning lotions and the prospect of a year-round faux glow. Suffice to say that I amassed an inventory of products. Though self-tanners had come a long way since the Coppertone QT of my adolescence, some still turned me streaky orange, others had an unpleasant odor, and most left me with stained palms and clothing. Nevertheless, I continued my quest for the illusion of a healthy sun-kissed glow, disregarding the fact that there was nothing actually healthy about having one. Finally I struck gold, or more precisely, L’Oreal Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Lotion, and have looked like an old bronzed baby shoe ever since. Thank you, L’Oreal, for knowing I’m worth it.
I developed a sublime bronze through methodical, if not compulsive, application in my bathroom. But I wanted more than just a tawny hue. I loved the sunshine, the heat, even the smell of sunscreen. Come summer, I couldn’t wait to hit the beach, and though I added a schmear of SPF 30 before I left the house, my tan lines indicated that I was not reapplying it frequently enough. I reasoned that as long as I didn’t get burned, it was okay.
And then came a dark period.
For my 42nd birthday, my husband gifted me with the promise of “sleeping in”. Excusing me from the madness of getting my kids up and off to school was a small gesture, but I had come to appreciate even the few extra seconds of sleep garnered by keeping my eyes closed while walking to the bathroom. Unfortunately, I awoke that morning to a loud thud and some yelling, followed by way more yelling, and then if I’m not mistaken, shrieking. I shrunk back into my covers and tried to enjoy the last milliseconds of my fleeting birthday gesture.
“Shh, you’re going to wake Mommy. I want to let her sleep in for her birthday!” my husband shouted in a whisper.
“I’m going to tell Mommy…” one of the boys threatened.
After my husband ushered the kids to the bus stop, I dragged myself to the bathroom, eyes closed, to take a look at my new older self in the mirror. I had gone to bed feeling okay about my 41 year-old self, but to my horror, my nocturnal metamorphosis to 42 had been harsh. My face had erupted in clusters of cystic acne and red blotches. Dark puffy circles loomed like storm clouds under my eyes, and a bumper crop of gray hair had grown ripe for harvest.
When had I become so ugly, so haggard? How long had I been walking around with my eyes closed?
I tell you all of this so that you might understand the grim situation I faced when I made a Bad Decision. I knew I shouldn’t have done it, but I did it anyway, and to this day, I remain shrouded in shame. There are those who binge on food, alcohol or drugs. Others steal, cheat or lie.
I went tanning.
That birthday morning, I purchased an unlimited month of body baking at the Tanning Oasis. I willingly slid myself into a perverse human size toaster oven, and lay perfectly still until the timer dinged and I was golden like a chicken nugget. I offered my conscience the rationale that I would look and feel better if I got a little “color” and vitamin D, but I knew bullshit when I heard it. Especially when I made it up myself. After my third visit, I remember looking out to either side of the storefront entrance to make sure no one I knew would see me leaving the joint. It might as well have been a crack den. Thankfully, my Jiminy Cricket convinced me never to go back again.
For the last decade, I have been careful to protect myself in the sun. Unfortunately, I cannot undo the years of damage. Cute freckles and beauty marks have become age spots, moles and pre-cancerous legions. One such legion on my forehead prompted me to make an appointment with the dermatologist. While I was there, I asked about another flat, pink spot on my neck that had persisted for several years. A biopsy of that spot revealed that I had a full basal cell carcinoma.
Yes, that’s skin cancer.
With the discovery of cancer crawling around my collarbone, the doctor recommended MOHS surgery. This procedure begins with a small incision, scraping of the area and then in-house testing of the tissue to determine if all malignant cells have been removed. Additional cutting, scraping and testing continue until the tests come back negative.
I was a little nervous when I arrived at the office, but eager to have the lurking demon excised. I will admit, I would have preferred to be knocked out with a brick to the head first, but evidently the plan was for me to experience the procedure as a waking nightmare. Initially, I tried to keep my cool, tossing out a few wise cracks to lighten up the conversation between the doctor and assistant. Oh, I was witty, witty, witty, all right, until all hell broke loose and I smelled the Girl On Fire. The scent of burning flesh set off my persecution alarm. I guess maybe cancer and Nazis occupy the same space in my mind. In any case, I thought it best to play dead while they welded my neck closed.
After the charring, I was sent back to the waiting room to wait for test results. By the time they called me back in for a second round of snipping, scraping and cauterizing an hour later, I had begun to think of the procedure as a medical exorcism. Markedly less jovial, I envisioned the next series of experiments Dr. Mengele had in store for my severed head. This time around, we were not on speaking terms. When they called my name for a third time, my wit and hallucinations had vanished and all I had left was:
This is your own damned fault.
Waiting for the results, I tried to get a handle on what it was that had me ignore better choices for my health and well being, and further, ignore the signs that something was wrong. I mean, I knew better. I also knew, however, that self-condemnation would not change my current circumstances. There is always only now, where I am at this minute, with an opportunity to create and commit to what is next for me. As the nurse called my name, I braced myself for whatever was next; more cutting or a clean slate, and I vowed to take care of myself the way I would take care of those I love.
The good news is that the last round of tests came back negative and that the procedure is about 96% effective at fully removing the cancer. The bad news is that there is a 70% chance that my stupidity will bubble up to the skin somewhere else on my body. It is also unfortunate that I have a three-inch gash and twenty stitches across my neck as if someone attacked me. It was as unsettling to feel that I had slashed my own throat as it was to feel the sutures being pulled through my neck like a Raggedy Ann whose head had been yanked off.
See, I lost my head for a while there, but I think I’ve got it pulled back on now.
I am committed to taking care of the body and mind I live in. I encourage you to do the same. We have all had times when we have slipped up and done ourselves in. There are regrets about how we handled something or didn’t handle something, and consequences either way. We have all been guilty of the inside job. But whatever our confessions are about, they are history now. There is no going back, nor any point in dragging your past along with you as you go forward. Look down at your feet and note that you are standing at the starting line of what’s next. Choose where you’re going to go and how you’re going to get there, no matter where you've been. Me? I’m going to CVS to get a little more self-tanner.
And then I’ll be here at www.fitnessbyloren.com if you need some help getting started--