The following was written by Christy Mershon Day, a former resident of Troy. It is titled “Melanoma Melodrama” and talks about her struggle with cancerous melanoma. This coincides with the 100th birthday of the American Cancer Society. It was submitted by her mother, Patsy Mershon.
It is officially spring and people are outside in the sun. We are a nation that LOVES the sun. We all want to go where the sun is shining. The bad thing is…we are also a nation that thinks ‘Tan” is beautiful. Most of my life I’ve believed that being tan was necessary if I wanted to “look my best” or that ‘tan fat looks better than pale fat.” Of course, at one point I also believed that ‘higher the hair, the closer to God.’ Do I need to explain why some beliefs are just plain wrong?
At this point, if you are still a tanner, it is time to quit. Bronze skin is not worth it. Believe me: I’ve had time over the last few weeks to consider just how much that tan cost.
Since I was around 16, I have been performing what one blogger humorously called “sun math” in my head. Rather than spend two minutes a day applying sunscreen, I spent 30 minutes in a tanning bed. Yes, I had a slightly higher risk of getting melanoma but conversely, I had a very high chance of looking better after tanning, which meant I had a better chance of attracting a guy who would fall in love with me and be there for me, even if I got wrinkles or, God forbid, skin cancer. Even when I found love, I continued to tan and changed the equation. I needed a tan to get that promotion. I needed a tan to disguise my weight…the variables changed but the equations never stopped.
Psychologists would call my sun math (and its close cousin, ‘cookie math’) by another name: cognitive dissonance. If you remember Psych 101, that’s when you have two contradictory ideas that cause you discomfort, so you find ways to make them compatible. In my case, I chose to downplay the sun’s potential lethality so it didn’t conflict with my belief that it made me look pretty. This is where I should let you know a little secret: I was never good at math (sun or otherwise). Last week I learned that my luck has run out. I have malignant melanoma.
I received the dreaded phone call from the doctor’s office with the results of a biopsy on an unusual looking mole on the back of my calf. The conversation was brief:
“We have your biopsy results…you have melanoma…I have put your referral to see the surgeon…can you come in Friday to discuss your treatment options?
I felt my life come to a screeching halt. I was speechless….I have WHAT? The first and only question I could blurt out was “will I need chemotherapy?!” The nurse could only tell me that I have Stage 3 melanoma, a disease usually found in people three decades and older. The past seven days have been a blur of words: biopsy, surgery, prognosis…the list goes on. I have to tell you, there is nothing like contemplating your own mortality to make you introspective. The thing is, I know how I got here and I plan to take each day as it comes. If I’m honest, I have to tell you that I’m scared and that this sucks…but for me to rage against this disease is much like an alcoholic asking why he/she is stricken with cirrhosis. Really? Some of you remember when a supervisor asked if I wanted to attend a “Woman of Color” conference because he thought I was a Latina. It was the late 90s and I had reached a tan nirvana. Now I will pay the price.
Any how…enough about my mistakes. I’m writing because I want YOU to do something. Don’t panic! I’m not going to get on my soapbox and start bombarding you with statistics on the dangers of tanning. I realize that you, much like me, are probably doing your own ‘sun math’ and won’t listen anyway. Instead, I want to talk to you about your children…specifically your little girls. I’ve seen you at the pool slathering them with SPF 50 before you put on water wings and accompany them to the kiddie pool. I’ve also seen some of you drop them off a mere 10 or so years later at the tanning salon. They aren’t old enough to drive but plenty old enough to tan. I’m confused.
I started thinking about this before my melanoma melodrama. I was working at a community event where parents bring children to learn about sign up for summer camps, sports and other extracurricular activities. The event had a main stage area where various kids were performing. There were dancers, martial artists, cheerleaders , twirlers and more. Almost every little girl I saw sported a deep bronze tan and heavy makeup. It was February. In Missouri, I was shocked. Were these little girls (some couldn’t have been any older than 8) tanning?
Over the weekend, as I thought about my own diagnosis, I couldn’t get those girls out of my head. I also remembered the moms. They were pretty women my own age or younger. Almost all were deeply tanned like their daughters.., and like I have been for most of my life. For the very first time the harm we are doing to our little girls began to register in my (apparently tiny) brain. Over the last few years discussions of body image among girls have become more prevalent. Large corporations are leading a charge to increase awareness of the issues surrounding our constant quest for physical beauty. Most of us give a great deal of lip service to wanting to create a new generation of healthy and confident young women. Then that cognitive dissonance thing kicks in again. At least it has formed me. I can’t count the number of times while working in education that a beautiful young woman has complained to me about her body. More than once I’ve attacked those attitudes only to make a comment about my own weight in the same breath…or skip lunch to go tan so that I ‘look better.’ What message was I sending? I can’t count the number of times a young woman in my office has said she envies my tan. One of the salons I used to frequent even let me tan free of charge since so many girls came in because of my recommendation. At the time I thought nothing of this ‘referral discount.’ Now I wonder how many of them will face the same diagnosis in upcoming years.
Look, I’m not judging you (people in glass houses…lol) and I can’t change the last 38 years. What I can do…what WE can do…is to become more aware of the impact we have on this next generation of women. It’s funny because I have so many friends who quit smoking (or at least only do it secretly) once they had kids. Why? At the core it’s because we all know that smoking carries health risks and we want healthy kids. So, riddle me this: is one kind of cancer better than another? I hate to tell you but I have had to face one VERY harsh truth lately-both can kill you equally as dead.