Canadian Author Natalie Richardson is a mother to identical twins, writer and melanoma survivor. This is her story.
Dear Sun Worshipper,
I noticed your tan. I fondly remember the warm relief of turning my face to the sun and feeling the heat through to my bones. My happy place was lying, sitting, walking, anything! – under the bright rays of the sun.
Natalie Richardson on her wedding day
I have been a sun-baby my whole life. My Ukrainian-Canadian skin rarely burned, and was always glowing bronze. Even before it was called a “contour,” my contour was naturally golden, blemish-free and required a dusting of bronzer only on days I would wear black, or want to stun the party scene post-vacation.
Come the month of May I would be flaunting my tank tops and starting the summer day ritual of sneaking out on my lunch breaks to a private sunny corner to expose as much skin as possible to the renewing spring sun. Little did I know this habit would lead me to spend sunny days far differently later in life.
May is now for me the start of a season of limited outdoor time and repeated pangs of regret. May is Melanoma Awareness Month, and I am painfully aware of that, as I have melanoma.
Two years ago I had a mole turn ugly, far uglier that any piece of skin should have a right to be. When I had it removed, the testing showed an aggressive form of skin cancer. More tests quickly led to a diagnosis of stage 3b nodular melanoma; it had spread to my lymph nodes. I quickly learned this was not just skin cancer. It was inside my body, never to leave.
To help rid my body of this disease, I have had four surgeries, one of which landed me on bedrest for two months and has caused permanent damage to my leg, which remains swollen and heavy from lymphedema. After that I had immunotherapy treatments over the course of 68 weeks which have so far staved off the spread of melanoma to my organs, but in return have disrupted my gastrointestinal system to uncomfortable proportions.
My children, friends and family have suffered alongside as I have struggled to survive melanoma. We have all learned too much about this deadly disease, this disease that will afflict over 6,800 Canadians this year. Almost 1,200 won’t survive. Even writing those words makes my blood run cold. I can no longer heat it up in the sun, and I wish I never had.
I continue to recover from the blow that melanoma has given me, but I also continue to have CT scans every three months and frequent appointments with my oncology team. I cannot make a medical move in the care of my own health without first discussing it with at least three doctors. I appreciate my physicians immensely, but if I could choose? I would prefer my old lunch breaks back; my carefree days of privacy and a glowing complexion, my confidence and ambition for a long life ahead.
All of those are gone, but what I am left with is a new perspective on beauty and a better glow – a glow from within. An ambition to change perspective on what appears to our society as “healthy skin.” It is not the old days, when tanned skin was perceived to be healthy, connected with athleticism and a blooming lifestyle.
Tan skin is damaged skin. Melanoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the skin cells called melanocytes (cells that colour the skin). Melanoma is caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from either sunlight or tanning lamps; UV radiation damages genes that regulate cell growth and division. It is considered the least common, yet the most serious, of the three main types of skin cancer, which also include basal cell and squamous cell cancers.
In my case, melanoma has metastasized to my lymphatic system, therefore my risk of malignant cells making their way to my vital organs is high. I live in constant fear, waiting for the other shoe to drop. I live with stage 3 cancer. No tan was ever worth that.
I am thankful that I have the opportunity now to bring awareness to this critical issue. I started with my teenage twin daughters: they avoid sun over-exposure at all costs and they encourage their friends to share their sunscreen. I see their generation being more careful with their skin, and I love that tanning salon attendance now allows only 18+ customers.
I would like to speak with the 18+ tanners as well, though. I could show you my scars and describe to you the tears through which I have learned this lesson. I would show you photos such as the one above: myself as a young bride with a remarkable brown shade of skin. And then I would show you my new favourite brand of mineral sunscreen with a tinted base. I feel beautiful – and healthy – when I put it on. I would tell you to look after your largest organ, to keep it out of the sun and to inspect it regularly for irregularities or unwelcome changes in mole appearance.
And I would invite you to learn from and participate in such campaigns as the Become A Skin Checker movement: Detect. Protect. Keep Skin Cancer in Check. Spot Skin Cancer to Stop Skin Cancer.
All easy things to keep in mind. Besides the informative message to stay out of the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., wear sun-protective clothing, UVblocking sunglasses, a hat, and SPF30+ sunscreen, Become a #SkinChecker offers detailed information on how to find a dermatologist to help maintain your skin health.
#SkinChecker is connecting people world-wide with a healthy approach to skin and in turn, a greater awareness and observation of skin maintenance. An earlierdetected skin cancer diagnosis means less pain, fear, and risk of shortened life span. Don’t put your beautifully tanned head in the sand as I did, it’s not worth it.
I guarantee you are beautiful with your natural skin, please embrace it, look after it, and enjoy your healthy body without skin cancer melanoma.