This spring I had my very first cancer, a bouncing basal cell carcinoma. It showed up on my shoulder, a pearly little bump–innocent looking, really. Since I started having babies my previously serene skin has become mutinous, producing warty outbreaks, jumbo freckles, ominous pigment eruptions. Surely, I argued in the dermatologist’s office, surely this tiny translucent bump was nothing compared with those atrocities. It was pretty, even. The doctor looked at me. Then she picked up her needle and swooped down on the thing like a duck on a June bug.
Several days later, she called with the biopsy results. Her voice was very gentle and reassuring, as if the word “carcinoma” would send me into irreversible panic. I was cool about it, though. For one thing, I am always calm and coherent in the midst of medical crises. When my stepdaughter accidentally dropped her baby brother on his head, she and my husband sat weeping in the emergency room while I chatted coolly with the attending about my son’s hairline fracture, the need for an ambulance to take us to another hospital, the tests they would perform there. It’s not that I’m incapable of that sort of terror, it’s just I prefer to suffer it in private, which I do, often. Just the other day, getting out of the car with my children, I felt a slight pressure in my temple and thought, “That’s it, vascular aneurysm, massive cerebral hemorrhage.” I hoped I’d remain conscious long enough to get inside and turn on Clifford the Big Red Dog.
So, absolutely, I can panic with the best of them. “Disasterizing,” my husband calls it. But with my dermatologist, I was calm. I’d gone to the library to read about skin cancer and I knew that basal cell carcinoma is the best kind to get. It is a shiftless, lazy cancer, mutating without ambition. It never leaves the neighborhood or hops a passing lymph node or draws a bead on your vital organs. It just sits on the front stoop of your epidermis, whittling.
Still, it had to go, so I made the appointment and went. It was one of those bright March days that make you impatient for summer; already, the continent was tilting toward earth’s one and only star. Cotton shorts and sandals. Freedom from wool. A teenage girl sat on the curb next to a neighboring office. Her legs were sprawled knock-kneed across the asphalt and her face was tilted like a buttercup toward the sun. I went inside. The surgery was quick and painless; afterward, the nurse brought me a plastic bag filled with sunscreen samples and the doctor sat me down to tell me I was now officially “at-risk.” Having absorbed enough radiation to produce one cancer, she said, I must be on the lookout for another. Furthermore, I must diligently protect what was left of my ravaged DNA.
Walking through the antiseptic halls to pay my bill, I felt sad, as if I’d been robbed of something bigger than an almond-sized sliver of lawless cells. I thought about the girl outside, with her buttercup face. A month earlier, in another season, I might have sat on the warm asphalt to catch the sun. Now I am at-risk. I have pamphlets and informational brochures. I am educated about liver spots, cataracts, deep-impact wrinkles, deadly melanomas. I understand that my life has been a reckless joyride; that with every idyllic morning spent splashing in the waves, every picnic in the bleached light of a summer noon, every afternoon walk in the park, another bead slid across the abacus of phototraumatic hell.
My little cancer is gone, it’s life ended in a Biohazard box. I am left to carry on, under strict orders to apply broad-spectrum UV-UVA PABA-free titanium-dioxide sunscreen. And wear a burka. Even at night.
It’s not that I can’t ever get a tan again, it’s just that I have to get it out of a bottle. Australian Gold Espresso Dark Tanning Milk. Decleor Autobronzant Lait Lumiere. This is my future. The dermatologist says that like a lot of white Americans I’m poorly suited, gene-wise, to my latitude. In other words, I’m a white girl living in a brown land. I’m sun-happy but pigment-poor. Chromosomally, I belong in Switzerland, where my ancestors evolved in the wan light of alpine meadows. Now that I’ve spent 41 years in the subtropics of the American South, stupidly refusing to carry a parasol or take buttermilk baths, my fed-up skin is harboring countless would-be suicide-bomber cells, each one waiting for an invisible signal.
I feel sad about it, and also a little hopeless. The damage is done. Irreversible, they keep saying. Cumulative, amassed, piled up like dry tinder. That’s messed up, isn’t it? Why is it that unhealthy behaviors are cumulative, while healthy ones last about three minutes? Why is it the sunburn you got when you were four will bite you in the butt when you’re 40, but the cardiovascular benefits of a morning jog vanish by lunch?
I’m sorry for my children, too. I can’t speak for the other parts of the country but for teenagers here in the South sunbathing has historically been a big deal, a tribal ritual, one of the few coming-of-age behaviors unencumbered by statutory restrictions. How many categories of human behavior, cultural phenomena and contemporary music owe their existence to the day it became OK to strip down to a hanky-sized piece of cloth and lay prostrate in the sun?
Now that’s all, well, fading. I picture myself fussing over my son at the swimming pool, like John Travolta’s mother fussed over him in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. I imagine my daughter 11 years from now, loading her beach bag with hats and tight-weave cover-ups and tubes of zinc oxide. She’ll look at me expectantly and I’ll tell her again the old stories, how my girlfriends and I would lie for hours in the sun with our Sydney Sheldon novels, basted with Hawaiian Tropic and turning ourselves over and over in the sun, rotisserie-style.
Those were the days, eh? Entire afternoons spent on a webbed chair by the deep end, coconut-scented, drinking Tab in the tranced heat. Daintily pulling on our suit bottoms to peek at the progress. Listening to The Eagles on WKIX and aspiring to “the tan of the islands.” One summer we had a contest, the Great Bake-Off, to see who could get the darkest. I jumped the gun and broiled myself the first day, thereby entering a burn-and-peel cycle that put me out of the running and made me look as if I’d strayed into Area 51.
The winner was a girl named Deanne. Deanne cheated by developing a basecoat in Fort Lauderdale over spring break, but this wasn’t exactly the European championships, so we let her compete. Deanne knew all the right lotions to use and in which combinations. She knew how to position herself to tan the backs of her ears, how to rotate bathing suits to eliminate tan lines. On cloudy days, when everyone else went to the mall, Deanne stayed on schedule, flipping over every 20 minutes, “Take It to the Limit” on the radio.
In June, Deanne came down with a nasty cold, which you might think would be a setback. But she was in the zone, lying on her aluminum blanket with a bottle of baby oil and a box of tissues. Her tan deepened. Suspicion developed that she was using her mother’s tanning lamp at night, but Deanne denied the allegations, claiming she was just naturally dark on account of her grandfather was Cherokee. By Independence Day her skin was like a slice of just-popped cinnamon bread.
It’s true we worked hard for our tans. Sweating, anointing, making chronometric adjustments to our chairs. And yet, beneath the adolescent desire for competitive skin there was the primal satisfaction, the animal pleasure of lying in the sun.
I remember walking across a pasture once, and coming upon a fox sunning itself in the grass. The animal was young, a pup, really, taking time out from the grim business of survival to daydream in the still heat. A carpenter bee droned nearby, and stalks of Queen Anne’s lace held their doily faces to the sky. Standing perfectly still, watching, I knew that in the wide distances between our species–the fox, the bee, the wild carrot–there was a sun soaked intersection, a common pleasure.
This, I think, is the greatest loss in this the age of broad-spectrum titanium-dioxide. Not the demise of the all-American tan, but of the faith that, like the fox in its pelt, we were after all made for this world. That no matter how bleak things get it is possible to lie in the sun, to drowse and to dream.
One day after my surgery, when my stitches were itching and I was feeling especially cranky about it all, a friend told me, rather unhelpfully I thought, that I was just feeling my mortality, and to get used to it. From here on out, he said, it’s Death Valley, in Technicolor.
I’m trying to accept it gracefully. In truth, I feel braced for the predictable betrayals of middle age: the gray hairs, the wrinkles. I routinely grope for words like “tree” or “rock.” Big deal. Why else did I have children, but to help me remember the word “rock”? It is somehow more painful to imagine life in the shade, afraid of the sun. I’m guessing that won’t happen. That I’ll be out there anyway, with my sensible hat and a tube of Autobronzant.