I wear factor 50, and STILL got skin cancer

Health

I’ve always been the palest person anyone knows. All through school I’d be the person that others would run to to compare their golden tanned limbs, laughing and questioning whether I was really that white.

I’ve never tanned. Oh, I’ve tried. After revelling in the the compliments after my first spray tan, I made it my mission in my early 20s to finally scorch my skin to the perfect shade of olive that had eluded me my entire life. So I started to sunbed, using it as an excuse to get a ‘base’ tan before I went away warm weather training. I distinctly remember going on sunbeds twice a week for a month before a training trip to Tenerife, decreasing my SPF while on said warm weather training, before ditching the sun tan lotion completely on the last day, and getting so burnt I couldn’t walk properly. I went bright pink like a lobster, and peeled all my ‘hard work’ off over the next two days.

By my mid-20s, I realised how ridiculous I was being. I was blonde haired, blue eyed with Scottish genes. I started wearing at least factor 30, and stinking fake tan would be the closest I ever came to tanned. But I was still shocked at the reactions of those whenever I didn’t bother to painstakingly apply my Fake Bake, especially when returning from summer holidays. “No sun then was there?” “Left your tan on holiday?” “Did you sit underneath a rock all day?” I would laugh it off, but felt deep down that commenting on other people’s skin colour with such little regard would not be acceptable in any other race.

After my transplant in 2014, it was explained that the medication we take increases the likelihood of skin cancer by a whopping hundred-fold. So, being the lily white being I had by now come to accept, I started to slather on the factor 50 whenever the temperature rose above 20 degrees. But it seemed it wasn’t enough. I noticed a mark on my forehead at the start of 2017 and went to get it checked out. Nothing to worry about said the doctor, but come back in a month if it still hasn’t cleared.

It didn’t clear, but I left it several months, until I was almost certain (thanks Google) that I was dealing with a basal cell carcinoma (BCC), a non-melanoma skin cancer that would need to eventually be removed. When I eventually got round to seeing my doctor again, she took it a little more seriously and I was referred to clinical photography, a rather bizarre experience where you enter a photo studio and someone snaps at you with a rather standard Canon camera.

2 weeks later I received a copy of a letter sent to my GP, confirming that the dermatologist had viewed the pictures and was pretty certain I had a BCC, and it would of course need to be removed.

To be honest, this didn’t really scare me. My abdomen is littered in scars, I have blood tests almost fortnightly,  6-weekly venous infusions, endoscopic procedures – what would a little cancer removal do to top that?

So I popped along to my dermatology outpatients appointment on Monday 26th February 2018, 10 weeks after my close up with the Canon camera, ready to discuss how I was soon going to Australia, and ready to book in an appointment for the surgery when I got back. When the doctor proceeded to let me know I should get the pesky cancer removed right there and then, I almost fainted. I wasn’t properly prepared – did I have my best cancer removal outfit on? I hadn’t eaten in 4 hours. Would my car get clamped? After all that ridiculousness got out my system, I realised this was the best possible outcome. No long waiting list, no worry about the cancer becoming aggressive in Oz, get it out and let’s get my face healing.

The surgery was uncomfortable, the anaesthetic needle was ouchy, and when I was shown how big the scar on my forehead would be, I almost cried.

But what is the alternative? Yes BCCs are not killers. I’m not going to start using #cancersurvivor in my biog. Once they’ve gone there’s no need for any further treatment, so why get rid of them at all? Well, after I’d Googled this myself, the answer was that these cancers can start destroying the surrounding tissue if left to their own devices. In the case of the face, it can create deformities as it encroaches into the bone and surrounding tissue. No thank you. I’m not a fan of scars, but I think I’ll pass on the caved-in skull for the time being.

My main point here is that, yes, everyone looks fabulous with a tan, but PLEASE be sensible in the sun. My cancer could have been a lot worse, and I’m an avid SPF user these days. Get enough sunlight for your Vit D, but don’t scrimp on that sunscreen. Look after your body, check your skin, get anything unusual checked out, and persevere if they don’t listen to you the first time! In the meantime, I look forward to wrinkle free skin when I’m in my 70s, and an instant facelift from the chunk of forehead the NHS has kindly removed for free. As we say in the transplant world, there is nothing wrong with #stayingpasty.