Sunblock: a skin cancer scare born in the 1970s

Sun bathing

I could be wrong and I’m willing to be corrected , but I’m pretty sure that the term ‘sunblock’ didn’t even exist in the Northern Hemisphere in the 1970s and 80s when I was growing up.

In those heady days when the UV rays of the Mediterranean beckoned families adventurous enough to throw themselves on the mercy of Freddie Laker and Thomas Cook, Factor 8 was considered high.

Every holiday snap of me as an under-10 year old sees me white haired and nut brown, doing handstands on a variety of sun drenched beaches, not a bottle of lotion in sight.

Aged 15 I was invited to a friend’s 18th birthday party.

A very smart affair in a marquee with a seating plan. The dress I planned to wear revealed an expanse of shoulder and back; the very same expanse hosting a crop of teenage spots.

My dad gave me the cash for a few sunbed sessions assuring me that ultra violet cured everything from acne to bow legs. There are fragments of truth in this.

At university my housemates and I worked harder on our tans than on our degrees. In the summer we covered ourselves in baby oil and prostrated ourselves in the local ornamental gardens; during the other eleven months we rented a sun bed which we ran off the university electricity.

So I think I only became aware of the concept of your actual sun blocking cream and its benefits when I heard that brilliant Baz Luhrman song, ‘Sunscreen’. But by then it was too late.

Yes, I’d dressed my own children in rash vests and marinaded them in Factor 50 and yes, since I’d noticed those fine lines developing around my eyes and the less fine ones on my décolletage I have been slathering myself in protection, but the bad news for seventies sun worshippers is that it’s too bloody late. The damage has been done!

Last year I was treated for a BCC – a basal cell carcinoma, the most common kind of skin cancer suffered in the UK. It was a sneaky little bastard of a condition because it was almost invisible.

I’d look at my forehead and wonder if the shiny bit was normal and then, when it developed into a sort of tiny scratch that never seemed to heal I thought maybe I’d let the GP check it out.

One referral and a biopsy later, my fabulous dermatologist confirmed it was a BCC.
He is Indian. I am a Northern European, fair skinned woman.

“What the heck were you thinking of?” He asked when I told him of my reckless history of sunbathing.
“We didn’t know any better!” I said.

“There were only public health adverts about avoiding AIDS and not spitting in the street! I thought the sun was healthy!”

“Pop into that examination room and undress to your underwear,” he ordered. “We need to check your skin all over.”

Like, seriously, OMG. I had not come prepared. By some terrible Random Act of Underwear I was wearing a leopard skin thong.

I wish I were exaggerating this for the sake of a good story, but it is the truth as I (thankfully) live and breathe. The dermatologist and his accompanying female nurse entered while I stood there, mortified.

“I can only apologise for my pants,” I said, eyes lowered.

“It’s ok,” he assured me, “we see all sorts in here.” I imagined him describing my pantage over a pot noodle in the hospital kitchen with other consultants. It didn’t help me relax.

Cumulative sun damage is bad news. The good news for me however, was that, with what turned out to be 8 hours of Moh’s surgery a few weeks later, my cancer was removed and the scar, a year on, barely discernible.

I love the sun. I don’t see enough of it. When we do get together though, nothing makes me feel better. But now, I won’t go anywhere without sunscreen.

There are three of us in this relationship and that’s how some relationships work best.

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