My Journey Around The Sun
* Warning: this article contains images that may be disturbing **
I’ve always loved the sun but it hasn’t really ever loved me back!
I was born a redhead with fair skin in Hobart, Tasmania but at the age of 8 moved to Papua New Guinea with my family where we lived for 5 years, before moving to Cairns in Tropical North Queensland, Australia – neither of these climates were ideal for a redhead!
My sisters had fairly olive skin so never had to be as wary as me in the sun; my parents always made sure that growing up I wore a large t-shirt over my swimsuit (no rash tops back in those days!) and a big daggy hat every time I went near the water or in the sun. It wasn’t really ideal growing up in tropical climates where we spent every spare minute by the beach, on islands and in pools; I always felt such a dag and was teased at times for my unfashionable swimming attire. Tanning was cool back in the 90s; it wasn’t ‘cool’ to cover-up and none of my friends had fair skin like me, so having to cover up in the sun affected my self-confidence.
I had a few minor cases of sunburn throughout my childhood and always wore sunscreen while out in the sun, however the following examples show a) how easy it can be to get caught out in the sun b) that sunscreen use alone isn’t sufficient for broad spectrum coverage and c) that we need to educate our children on the importance of protecting their skin with sun-protective swimwear.
Getting caught out…
- FRANCE – I spent a year in France as an 18 year old – my first major expedition upon finishing high school. Despite sunscreen use on the beach, I suffered a bad case of sun burn; my legs were so sore and throbbed any time I stood up. My French host parents tried putting raw tomatoes + cold tea bags on my skin but it took days to recover. The photo below shows me on the beach from that point on; I was covered head to toe in whatever was around so as to avoid further exposure. The French wear as little as possible on the beach (and hence also have one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world) so I definitely caught some odd looks covering up the way I did à la plage, as sadly it’s not the way people dress on the beach in France!
- ARGENTINA / BRAZIL – At age 23 I was traveling around South America; a friend and I spent the day at Iguaçu Falls on the Argentina/Brazil border and, not knowing that there was absolutely no shade on the boardwalks around the falls, both of us suffered terrible sunburn. My shoulders blistered so badly that I struggled to wash my hair! I had put sunscreen on earlier in the day but it just wasn’t enough.
- NEW YORK – I once fell asleep on a beach in New York (the beach was on the aptly named Fire Island) and burnt my stomach so badly that even breathing was painful; I’ll never forget walking around Central Park in a white top that looked pink… the glow from my burnt middle changed the colour of the fabric. I was wearing sun cream, lying in the shade on a cloudy day so assumed I would be safe… I didn’t know back then what I know now about UV rays on cloudy days, and neither rash tops nor UPF swimwear were an available option back then. Thankfully a better understanding of UV dangers + availability of sun-safe swimwear options have since evolved.
- JAPAN – The Japanese are typically very sun-aware and are very good at covering their skin any time they head outdoors; most wear gloves while driving to protect themselves from UV rays, they don’t rely on sunscreen alone to protect their skin in the sun. Sunscreen I had bought locally just wasn’t strong enough so I once burned so badly on the backs of my legs that I struggled to ride my bike. In my three years living in Japan I don’t ever remember seeing women lying on the beach tanning themselves as many women do in other parts of the world – if you go just don’t rely on the sunscreen there!
These are a few examples of severe cases of sunburn suffered while growing up, and proof that wearing sunscreen alone just isn’t enough for proper sun protection. Thankfully sun cream has come a long way in the past decade so our coverage is better, though still not often sufficient enough; the importance of covering our skin with UPF fabrics while exposed to the sun’s harmful rays is known now more than ever before.
My issues started to show in my 20s; I had many spots burned with liquid nitrogen, I used salicylic acid on my arms and chest, and had BCCs cut out of my chest and back at age 24. A BCC is a basal cell carcinoma, which is a non-malignant form of skin cancer.
I used different treatment creams for anywhere between two to six weeks on several occasions; each treatment resulted in a flare-up and blistering of the surrounding skin. The treatments were painful and arduous, but it was better than having scars from the surgical removal of the BCCs. The creams used are forms of chemotherapy so the process was very uncomfortable.
My worst experience using one of these treatments was when I was instructed to apply it to my entire forehead, when my second child was only a few months old. It was painful, uncomfortable and I didn’t want to leave the house – I looked like an alien as you’ll see in this photo of me, mid-treatment.
In mid-2018 I used a new product, a two-day gel treatment across my entire chest; the area flared up and blistered over the 5 days that followed. Again it was painful, I couldn’t sleep on my side, was in pain washing my face and my children didn’t want to come near me! The cost was higher than other creams on the market but the time factor of 2 days vs 6 weeks was the selling point for me. The following photos show the stages during the treatment of my chest:
These days I take as much care as I can to protect myself in the sun; I wear reef-safe sun cream every day on my face and neck/chest area + my hands. I often carry a scarf in case I get caught out and need to cover my shoulders in summer. I don’t go out in the sun in the middle of the day and any time I swim I wear a full-covering rash top/suit, lots of suncream on exposed areas as well as a hat on my head.
My grandfather unfortunately passed away due to a melanoma in his late 60s, and my father recently had two removed. I also have more BCCs on my back pending treatment this month.
The threat of the sun is real, not just for people with fair skin, but for any one who spends time in the sun.
Bob Marley’s cause of death was melanoma which started under his toe nail.
It’s vital that we all protect ourselves and our dependents as much as possible by avoiding prolonged UV exposure and covering up when in the sun. A tan may look nice short-term but the long-term damage is not worth risking – get it from a bottle instead!
For more information on skin cancer please refer to the Cancer Council Australia’s website:
This article was written by Emily Gradon and reflects her own personal thoughts, opinions and experiences with the sun and its effects.
Skin cancer treatment outcomes and results may differ for each individual; all care should be taken with regard to skin cancer and expert medical advice must be sought before undergoing any treatment.