I think that all people who have lived with different forms of cancer hear things that make their skin crawl. People can give you the ick in every which way and never know that they do it to you. As a Stage III Melanoma survivor who received a course of immunotherapy, this has been especially true. I physically didn’t change. Emotionally, I’m a whole new person who listens much more closely to what people have to say.
I have friends who joke about burning to a crisp all summer long. I know a hairstylist in my hometown who goes to the tanning salon like she’s going to a weekly mass. Some of my mom’s co-workers go as well.
People just forget. Your skin is an organ. Of course, I’m hyper-aware of it now – but your skin can become cancerous like anything else in your body. It’s alarming how many people forget about this reality until I share my lived experience with them.
Then the questions come:
Did you wear sunscreen enough? (In some cases, they’ll ask if I wore it at all)
Do you use tanning beds?
I know my family friend who had lung mets would be asked all of the time if she was a smoker. Never had touched a cigarette. Curiosity is a cat killer or something, but dang – it’s so easy to see how awful these questions are from our CancerLand side of the fence, isn’t it?
ANYWAY – My current SuperGoop (sponsor me, baby) addiction doth confirm that I have used sunscreen for my whole life, as long as I can remember. Not just at the beach! It’s important to wear sunscreen even on rainy days; haze can sharpen UV’s impact. That’s an early life lesson that I carried well into my early twenties, where most of my dresser is covered in bottles of assorted formulas that I have tried and selected depending on where I am going and how frequently I might need to reapply. Finding the right SPF for you is what some might consider a learning curve.
I also have learned – through the many, many times I have been asked these questions that people who are ‘concerned’ about my skin cancer prognosis are not necessarily worried about my diagnosis. A learning curve for them, in turn.
Asking these colloquial questions is a (nothing if not subconscious) control thing.
“Well, if she DIDN’T wear sunscreen or if she DID use a tanning bed – and I do the opposite – then I should be safe. I won’t have to suffer her fate. Her infusions and her scans and her appointments can remain her foreign burden to carry. Phew.”
Hate to be Debbie Downer here, but that’s simply not true. Hear me out.
In some ways, I see this as my superpower. I know that I do not have nearly as much control over things as I would like to admit. I would like to imagine that I could eat exclusively blueberries and work out 10 hours a day and always drink the right amount of water, and be safe. I like to think that all of those tubes of sunscreen I have blown through in my life might have saved me from what I now see as a rather distinct before and after in my existence, before and after Melanoma.
But those things didn’t save me. The BRAF mutation was present, and I had cancer. According to my oncologist, who I very openly trust with my life, BRAF has nothing to do with not wearing sunscreen or generally mistreating my skin. BRAF mutation in melanoma just means you have melanoma, because life just shakes out that way sometimes.
Instead of dwelling on these accidentally-loaded questions, I try to use my time and energy to think about things that I can control instead. It’s something that brings me peace because when you’re granted the superpower I just described to you, you start to see how that lack of control is present almost omnisciently, it hovers over you in everything that you do.
What I can do is smile at strangers. I can make my coffee just the way I like it. I can elect not to ask people stupid fucking questions. I can write about my experience with cancer.
I do all of those things with intention.
And I think I’m doing alright.
Aileen Burke is a Stage III Melanoma survivor and oncology social worker from upstate New York. When she isn’t writing, she’s looking for exceptional coffee and theatre. Friendship applications can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also connect to her on Instagram.