Friend or Foe? My Fragile Relationship with the Sun

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Last year, and after already hearing about how much I love winter, Doc asked about summer. Specifically, he wanted to know, what was my relationship with the sun?

In the words of everyone else’s favorite social media site, “It’s complicated.”

Now, with another summer just around the corner, here’s the skinny on my tenuous relationship with our closest star.

As was typical during my childhood in the 1970s, my brother and I played outside all the time, no sunscreen. We went to the beach and pool all day, too, without sunscreen. And no, before you judge, our parents weren’t bad parents–we were all just part of an era in which the whole point of suntan lotion was not to protect you but, rather, to ensure that you kept your ass baking at the pool or beach all day while you worked toward a deep, golden glow.

And so it was, too, that when I was a kid, come early March and the first scents and signs of spring (melting snow and mud), my mom would pull a folding lounge chair out of the garage and strategically position it so that the house blocked the blazingly chilly wind that blew in off of Lake Erie. Suited up in a down ski jacket and Bain de Soleil Orange Gelee (SPF4), she’d begin her ritualistic sunworshipping, completed each day by a generous slathering of a yellow after-sun lotion. I can still smell them now.

Like my mom (who is darker skinned and tans easily) I, too, baked myself with an insatiable desire to have that glow that told the world you were beachy, relaxed, cool, probably dating a surfer. Except, of course, that I was a towheaded kid with freckles and fair skin. Nevertheless, the pain of too much sun was minimal when compared to the full potential of a sun-kissed self, and sunburns were badges of courage.

Until I was diagnosed with melanoma at 15.

It was winter and I was visiting a camp friend in Ohio. After showering one morning, I put on some scented body lotion (only because I was visiting this camp friend, who was into that–something that I hadn’t yet discovered, as all the products I had at that time were focused on hair and face). As I was applying it, I felt a little bump on my left forearm. Tiny and nearly unnoticeable but still, I thought it was odd that I’d never noticed it before.

I have no idea how I knew then that it was something that should possibly be checked out. I don’t remember skin cancer ever coming up in conversation or reading about it: In the 1970s and early 1980s, the sun was still our friend. But I mentioned it to my mom when I got back to Buffalo. She told me to mention it to the dermatologist, who I’d been going to for most of my life for various skin ailments and who I was due to see in a few weeks for teenage acne.

Dr. Berger did a biopsy and I went on my way. A few days later, the biopsy came back cancerous.

Surgery was scheduled for a couple of weeks later, which was a huge bummer because I was supposed to go on a ski weekend with some friends and had to miss it because my arm was stitched and bandaged. When I went to school the following week, a social studies teacher noticed the bandages and asked what happened. I told her that I had a melanoma and it was taken out. She replied, “Did you know that half of the people who get that die from it?”

No, actually, I hadn’t. It was pre-interwebs and I hadn’t researched it, hadn’t even thought about it. But a year later, when an acquaintance’s mother died from it, I started to get a better sense of how lucky I was. She was one-half of the equation; I was the other. (Fortunately, awareness of melanoma has reduced that statistic significantly since then, but it’s still high and in the years since, so I’ve been told, both Dr. Berger and an early boyfriend died from it.)

Needless to say, the sun and I broke up.

I began to wear copious amounts of sunscreen, all the time. For the next 30+ years, you could have dangled me inches from our star and while my innards would have fried, my skin would have retained its pallor. I lived near the beach and swam in the early hours before work and again after work; on weekends, I stayed inside throughout the searing daytime hours.

While the benefit has been that I probably have a few fewer wrinkles at this point in my life than I otherwise would have, the truth is that I fully expect to have melanoma again at some point. Possibly related to the sunscreen and my mole-like existence, I also developed a chronic Vitamin D deficiency.

I’m not certain that this deficiency is related to my autoimmune issues but I suspect so. Vitamin D is actually a hormone and if one hormone is severely depleted, not only would there be the physiological implications of that, but there’d also be the related implications of throwing everything else out of whack. It’s like if you’re making cookies and you forget to add salt to the mix. Not only do you lack the flavor of the salt, but its absence also changes the flavor ratios of everything else that’s still in the mix.

And so it is and has been. Years of Vitamin D supplementation barely moved the measurements when bloodwork was done, even when my primary care doctor put me on enormous doses to try and boost it. A few months ago, though, it nudged into the very-low end of normal–possibly a sign of healing?

But back to Doc. He says it’s important to get some sun, as he believes that there’s so much more to how it affects our bodies and psyches than we could possibly know. He says to imagine the days when we’d have been hunting and gathering in the woods, with dappled sunlight on us all day, even a bit of direct exposure. With that in mind, he encourages me to go out, without sunscreen, before 10:30am and after 4pm for about 10-15 minutes at a time, every day.

I will try to comply, while I also try to find a suitable way to explain this summer’s tan to my dermatologist.

{Photo by Ghost Presenter from Pexels, thank you!}

{Note: These are my own experiences with applied kinesiology, which clearly aren’t meant as medical advice for anyone else. But I know a lot of friends and family members are grappling with a huge variety of autoimmune issues and other ailments, so I’m happy to share my experiences. And if this is your first visit and you’d like to follow chronologically, click here. Otherwise, enjoy!}


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