Monday, July 26, 2010

Sun Salutation

Oops. I did it again.

This happens to me more than to most normal people. I'm just not very good at applying sunscreen, I guess. Every summer, there's the one trip to the pool where not only do I sunburn, but I sunburn in some really unusual place or pattern because of sloppy sunscreen application. This time, it's my left thigh. There's an area at the top of my left leg, about the size of a dinner plate, where my skin is beet red. This is not much of an exaggeration. Nowhere else is burned. It looks like someone hauled off and slapped me. Hard.

"It's not as bad as the stripes," said Jason, reminding me of the worst sunburn I ever had, both in terms of pain and in terms of lasting humiliation and embarrassment. When we went to Florida with my family about a month before we got married, I spent the one sunny day we had the entire vacation trying to get my pale self tan for that white wedding dress. The plastic slats of the lounge chair I spent the day in rubbed my SPF 30 off the backs of my legs, and when I flipped to get sun on my back, it left me with red, blistered stripes from ankle to thigh. Because it was such a bad burn, it left the stripes (which eventually turned from red to brown) on my legs the entire rest of the summer. There's a less-than-flattering picture of me on our honeymoon that Jason took from behind as I was observing the beauty of the Tennessee mountains; it looks like I'm wearing some sort of freaky novelty pantyhose.

You would think I'd learn. I'm careful in most other aspects of my life; I wear a seat belt, I don't speed (anymore), I don't smoke, I get enough fiber. But when it comes to the sun, I turn stupid. I can't help it. I love to tan.

I'm not nearly as bad as the Spanish teacher I had in high school who went to the tanning bed every day and who would not have looked Caucasian had she not been a bleached blonde. She admitted to me once that she probably was addicted to tanning (sadly, this is not the craziest thing I'll remember about her.) But something happens to me when I hit a reclining pool chair on a pretty summer day. The sun zaps me and turns me into a contended, relaxed puddle of a person who doesn't worry about pesky little things like reapplying sunscreen, cancerous moles, or premature skin aging. All I can think about is how to best position the straps on my tankini so my tan lines don't jump out from my favorite summer sundress.

"You two should really use sunscreen," my ENT offered to Ainsley and me when I saw him after our Hilton Head vacation. I know doctors are supposed to say stuff like that, but I came this close to telling him to stop being such a buzzkill. Besides, we DO wear sunscreen. A 50, even.

I'm just maybe not so good at actually getting it everywhere.

I know that too much sun is bad for you. I've had a couple of pre-cancerous moles taken off of previously-burned areas of my torso. I know better. But sunning is one of the great pleasures of my life. Even though I slather myself in sunscreen now to varying degrees of success (I shudder to think of my early teens when baby oil was our tanning ointment of choice) I love the feel of sunlight of my skin.

When I was taking classes to become Catholic many years ago, the nun leading the classes asked us to talk about the times we most felt God's presence in our lives. Some people said they heard God in the rain, some said they felt His presence most in rare times of silence. Some said they saw God in the trees, or in children's faces, or in a beautiful work of art.

"Sunlight," I remember saying. "When I feel sunlight on my face, I think of God." And that's true. When I turn my face to the summer sun, the warmth and the light I can see and feel even through closed eyelids makes me feel like I'm in the presence of the infinite. Like God is saying, "Here I am." It makes complete sense to me that so many cultures have worshipped a sun god.

After my current sunscreen faux pas heals, I will be right back out there in the sun celebrating the last two weeks of my summer break. Don't worry, I'll be wearing sunscreen more judiciously. You can call it an addiction, you can call it bad for my health and my skin, you can call it slothfulness. For me, though, it's almost a spiritual experience.

Albeit one that requires Solarcaine.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Blue Dress

My favorite piece of clothing is a blue and green plaid sleeveless shift dress that's as old as my marriage.

It's the oldest garment I have and I dare say it hasn't, and won't, go out of style. It comes to my knees and is as simple and classic a casual summer dress as can be.

I am amazed that it still fits. It's a bit more snug than it was 13 years ago, but has been flattering on my body through my skinny years, my chunky years, my chemo year, and even the beginning of my pregnancy year. I bought it when I had hair halfway down my back and it used to get snagged in the wooden buttons that stretch from hem to neckline; I continued wearing it when I had nothing but peach fuzz on my head.

When it was new, I wore it when I wanted to dress up a little bit. Now that the fabric is a little softer and more worn, it's my go-to dress on those hot Kentucky summer days when even a pair of shorts seems like too much clothes. I love it best after a day at the pool, when I've showered off the chlorine and sunscreen. I feel pretty, comfortable, and breezy in it; it feels like home.

I bought the dress on our honeymoon. We stayed at a cabin in a bed and breakfast in the mountains of Sevierville, Tennessee. It wasn't a glamorous honeymoon, and we were only 5 hours away from home. But it was perfect. Every day we woke to a country breakfast in the inn, went on a hike or some other mountain adventure, napped, shopped at the outlet stores in Pigeon Forge, and roamed around Gatlinburg. I remember thinking every night how strange and yet how wonderful it was to fall asleep and wake up with Jason and then to spend nearly every waking moment together and know that that was pretty much how the rest of our lives would go (except for that pesky thing called work.) We had been a couple for seven years when we got married, so you'd think I would have gotten used to the idea of being a married couple. But we hadn't lived together before we married, so that week in Tennessee was when I really saw how the rest of our lives was going to look.

Beyond that it still fits, beyond that it's still flattering 13 years later, that blue and green plaid dress is my favorite because it takes me back to those humble beginnings. That was before we lost grandparents, and parents, and before we realized that what we thought we wanted to do with the rest of our working lives wasn't really what we wanted to do with the rest of our working lives. Before we became parents, before the cancer. Back when we stood at the beginning of our road together and saw a straight, paved path, not knowing that just outside our field of vision were hills and valleys and broken places.

I'm not that same girl I was the day I plucked the dress off a rack at The Gap outlet store. But the dress is the same. It hasn't really faded, and it hasn't frayed. It has not lost a single button. The only way that it has changed is that it has changed on me.

I am especially thinking of the dress this week as I pick out an anniversary card and an anniversary gift for Jason. Thirteen years. Sure, a lot has changed. We've changed. But our love hasn't. Like the dress, the only thing that's changed is the way the love fits us. Maybe a little looser in some places, a little tighter in some others. But it still looks good.

Any woman will tell you that the perfect dress is hard to find. Harder still is finding a good husband. I am so very fortunate to have found both.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sisterhood Of the Travelling Pink Paper Gowns


Is there a more wonderful word in the English medical language? As I write this, sipping some iced tea on a day all where all is right with the world, I think not.

I have a confession. As a young female lymphoma survivor, I have had moments of something like resentment in the month of October when pink ribbons become as prominent as Halloween decorations. I've known great women who have battled breast cancer, and a close friend of my sister's lost the fight just a year after my own cancer war, so I've always understood the importance of breast cancer awareness. I've just been a little curious as to why we spend a whole month talking about it, and buying pink travel mugs, socks, reusable grocery bags, etc. when so many women deal with so many other types of cancer.

Until now.

I like to think I am brave. Having been through cancer hell once, I've liked to think that, should I get cancer again, I could put on a courageous face and give it my all.

And yet all bets were off last week when I found myself on a table at the local hospital's breast center, confronted with a biopsy of two suspicious areas in my right breast. I was terrified in a way I wasn't even when I had cancer. There's something so scary about a lump in your breast; I didn't realize how attached I am to the girls.

In many ways, this cancer scare was different than any other health threat I've ever had. When I went through cancer treatment, the whole experience seemed so sanitized, so impersonal. Not to say that I wasn't treated well by my doctors and nurses; I was. But it seemed like I was just one of many, just another machine rolling down the assembly line of chemo and radiation.

Perhaps because women have such strong feelings about their breasts, and because breast cancer can permanently and catastrophically change one (0r two) of the most sensual and idealized parts of a woman's body, everything at the breast center is designed to be calming, reassuring, and personal. I've never been treated so well in a medical setting; I felt like these women really cared.

Probably because they do. Both of the techs assisting the radiologist during the procedure said they had been on that very table themselves.

"It's really different to be the one getting the biopsy," one said. "I know exactly what you're going through and know that no matter what I tell you, you are going to be afraid. But we have every reason to believe that these lumps are benign."

And, thank God, they are. Or were; they disappeared from the ultrasound screen as they were drained, which is one of the most relieving things I've ever witnessed. I no longer have masses (or cysts, as they turned out to be) to worry about.

I was told before the procedure that 80% of the lumps found are ultimately benign. That's reassuring, especially when you end up learning you fall into that 80%. But the techs said they do these biopsies all day. I was in and out in an hour, so I would guess that means they do half a dozen or so on a given day. If my math is right, one out of every five biopsies comes back not benign.

So every day these women deliver bad news.

I was thinking about all this as I changed out of my pink gown in a pink dressing room and was led out by a nurse wearing a pink ribbon pin, a nurse who had kept her hand reassuringly on my shoulder through the entire procedure. In the waiting room were other women, of various ages, colors, and sizes who were waiting to go in. Some were getting their annual mammograms and will hear from their doctor that everything is normal and to come back next year.

Others are going to hear there's a lump, and like me, they'll learn after a nerve-wracking few days that everything is just fine.

But some are going to have their lives changed forever.

At some point in our lives, every woman is going to have to stare breast cancer in the face. It could be that it's going to happen to a mother, sister, or best friend. Or it could be that we will have our own scare and find ourselves in a pink gown watching as a doctor pulls back on a syringe that contains nothing malignant. Or we could find ourselves fighting breast cancer with all we've got, watching as the treatment changes our bodies.

To that I say: bring on the pink.