I Used To Worship The Sun... Then I Found Out I Had Skin Cancer

Photo: Ashley Armitage
I found out I had skin cancer the day before I flew to Ibiza. Stage 1 melanoma. If you’re going to be called into a small room in a hospital and told you have cancer, this is about as good as the news gets. At stage 1 they can quite literally take a scalpel to your flesh and cut the cancer out. If I’d put off that mole check for another 12 months I might be writing a very different piece.
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The consultant had called my mobile on Wednesday morning to tell me I needed to come in earlier than expected and that they’d see me on Friday. That left me two whole days to google various outcomes. We’ve all been there, when every search leads to death. Two weeks previous I had a mole removed because it looked a tad dodgy – at least, that was my summation of it; the hospital used other terms like ‘irregular border’ that still didn’t feel aggressively cancerous. But I knew they were testing for cancer, so to be called in a month early, the news could only be one thing. Cue 48 hours spent berating myself for the frankly ridiculous lengths I’d gone to in pursuit of a tan.
I grew up just outside Liverpool, which is relevant to this cancer story as the beauty standards of the North West in the noughties meant you had to have a tan. It was normal to sunbed weekly; it was also normal to coat your body in a ‘tingle’ cream and then sunbed (in Scouse, it’s very much a verb). The cream's active ingredient was methyl nicotinate, which is an acid; it worked by drawing all the blood to your skin as melanin needs blood to thrive. This meant that you would emerge from a 6-minute sunbed session shockingly red and your skin would be painful to touch, hence the friendly ‘tingle’ title.
Those 48 hours allowed me to wallow in shame and guilt at the numerous times I’d offered my holiday motto – "You have to burn to tan" – which explains how I was able to peel skin off my stomach like I was removing clingfilm from a sandwich in single translucent sheets. When everyone else was applying SPF, I rubbed in oil like I was a dead chicken. I blistered on beaches more times than I care to remember.
There is something strangely gratifying in the warnings becoming a reality, the ultimate lesson in my mortality. I am a skin cancer cliché; I am not one of those shocking anomalies – the vegan marathon runner who dies of a heart attack. If skin cancer were to be my fate, no one would say "I can’t believe it". I have type 1 skin, pale with lots of moles and freckles. I should have been sat in the shade but the beauty standard of my day was just too entrenched. I wanted ‘a healthy glow’; oh, the irony.
Don’t you just feel great with a tan, though? I do. Growing up, I longed to be thin, blonde and brown. Perhaps I gunned for these as they were in reach of my gangly, mousy genetics, helped along by bottles of peroxide and tubes of UV rays. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t known the risks every time I tanned but at the time I genuinely couldn’t see another way; I just had to have a tan. I used to have a ridiculous theoretical conversation with myself where I’d say, "I’d rather live five years less and have a tan than be pale my whole life" – like that was the choice, that five years were the likely payment. I am 34 years old and I have just received a letter from Macmillan asking if I need their support. Thankfully I don’t, because although I’m technically a cancer patient, after a small operation next week, I’m cured. And after that, all I need to do is never tan again. As my consultant said: "If you even change colour, you’re at risk".
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I’d rather not die so I do as she says. I don’t lay my towel out on Ibiza sand, plant my butt down and tip my head back to bask in the vitamin D rays. I don’t get that wonderful tight feeling between my shoulder blades after lying on my front for too long. I don’t get to admire my tan lines in the shower. I don’t wear a white T-shirt on the plane home to show off my tan. I don’t feel post-holiday confident. I feel pale.
Will I ever feel confident again? How can I rewire my brain to love my natural pallor? That’s what I think as I sit in the shade eating crisps and drinking an Estrella (also thinking that, unfortunately, a parasol doesn’t deliver the same appetite suppressant as the blaring midday sun). Just like Kylie Minogue in her "Slow" video, I am in a dress surrounded by naked gold limbs. From my shady vantage point the bodies all arranged feet to the sea look deranged. Can they not see they’re cooking?!
I risked my life to achieve a beauty standard. Women with dark skin sometimes do it with damaging whitening creams, and women with white skin turn to the sun. We’re all trying to achieve a very similar colour. Our culture's version of beauty has become so standardised there is a skin median. Vogue's March 2017 cover featured seven models of different ethnicities with Vogue claiming: "Together they represent a seismic social shift: The new beauty norm is no norm". But as this tweeter pointed out, there isn’t "a single woman darker than a paper bag in an 'inclusive' spread." The models, including Chinese Liu Wen and British Ghanaian Adwoa Aboah, all appear to have the same tan, biscuit skin; even the palest of them, Vittoria Ceretti, is browner than my natural colour.
Every day in the UK around 37 people are diagnosed with malignant melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer. Last Friday I was one of them. I still live in a culture that fetishises golden skin but pretty soon (once my current tan fades) I won’t be part of that culture. If you’ve read this thinking, ‘What about fake tan?’ well, it’s not the same and I’m loath to become a slave to another arduous beauty routine. It’s better than dying though, for sure. Can I learn to appreciate myself as I am? It’s going to take some rewiring but I’m sure I’ll get there. Ibiza is probably not the place to do it, though. What even is a holiday without tanning? Another question I’m working on.
Oh, and if you think you should probably get a mole check, get a mole check. Your GP can do it in five minutes. And wear sunscreen; everybody is free to wear sunscreen.
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