Next month (June 2018) it will be one year since I had surgery to remove skin cancer. This involved excising the basal cell carcinoma – the most common cancer – from my nose and replacing the skin with a graft from my shoulder. It takes around two months to heal and will take 24 months to fully blend with the surrounding tissue as the relocated skin is different and whiter. Other people don’t notice it – the area is about the size of a little fingernail – but I am self-conscious and it is easily hidden. A tiny dab of makeup does the blending for me until time and nature finish the work.
This is not easy to write about and make public but I do so to urge you to take care in the sun. I rarely used suncream, went on sunbeds only a few times down the years and burned in the sun at least once a year. It was never serious, I thought. A little sore redness on the back of my neck mostly; one time I burned my back, another the back of my legs; quite a few occasions my face burned while out walking rather than deliberately trying to tan. When I did want a tan I’d use suncream but the sun works on any exposed skin in any situation. Your intentions count for nothing.
For ten years I had a tiny white mark the size of a pinhead. Impossible to see unless I was practically glued to a mirror, easy to ignore and nothing, I thought, to worry about. Then, in September 2016, it opened up while watching a film at home with a friend and blood poured down my face. An urgent trip to the doctor results in instant diagnosis later confirmed with a biopsy.
The operation was done under local anaesthetic in June 2018, so I had half a year of sticking plasters on my nose before I found myself wide awake on a operating theatre table making a surgeon and his attendant nurse laugh at my joking while they cut my face. Until you have surgery or injury to your face, you don’t fully appreciate how much it impacts upon your identity and confidence.
I am lucky. I am not left permanently disfigured. The cancer is a type highly unlikely to return, but I have to take exceptional care in the sun for the rest of my life. Hats have to be worn between March and October, so I now have a dapper collection of them, and I should try to stay in the shade. I have to apply factor 50 sunscreen before leaving the house, and keep reapplying it. I do all this because of what happened, because I’ve been told by the doctors I must, but I wish I’d taken better care of my skin before the cancer. I cleansed, I moisturised, I thought that was enough. I was wrong.
Millions of you are wrong when it comes to the sun and your relationship with it. I see bald men turning their heads pillar box red, not caring; I know young women and men who use sunbeds all year round; I see men’s backs burning in the sun and they just don’t care. When people are burned, they laugh at their own stupidity while wincing in pain. Burning is always avoidable and you won’t laugh when you hear the words, “You have cancer” – that I’m certain of. So please, you don’t have to be a dick to get skin cancer. I wasn’t. You just need to not think and not take precautions before going outside in the sunshine. It’s easy to get skin cancer.
You might get skin cancer small, like I did. You might lose half your face. You can get it anywhere you have skin, which is everywhere. Every bit of skin you burn and have ever burned could be cooking up a cancer for you right now.
The visible part of the sun has a temperature of 5,500°C, while in the core it is more than 15m°C, the heat resulting from massive nuclear reactions. You would have to blow up 100 billion tons of dynamite every second of every day to match the energy produced by the sun. And when it shines down on us, we treat it like an accessory to beautify us because we want tans, see it as a mood enhancer and the maker of memorable summer days. It is raw dangerous power. As well as bringing life to this world, it also brings suffering and death. Treat it with more respect, and treat yourself with more respect as well.
Limit your time in the sun. Use protective high-factor suncream and keep reapplying it all day and always after swimming. Wear hats. Cover up. Don’t use sunbeds, ever. Or don’t do any of these things, burn red and make a joke of it. It’s your choice. Me, I think there are so many cancers that can maim and kill us – so why do we lay out the welcome mat for skin cancer?
We should value our bodies. We won’t get replacements. Please, stay safe in the sun and enjoy your time outdoors when the weather is hot and bright without putting your skin at risk.
I am a cancer survivor. I still find it weird, being able to say that, having gone through my experience. Some cancers aren’t avoidable but cancer caused by skin exposure to the sun is, so do all you can to avoid it. I do now, because I don’t ever want to go through what I went through again. I’d like you not to have a similar experience.
The old music hall number went, “The Sun has got his hat on, hip hip hip hooray”. Get yours on too.