My Journey Around The Sun
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 wonderful years, before moving to Cairns in Tropical North Queensland, Australia – neither of these tropical climates were ideal for me as a fair-skinned redhead, but I loved the tropical lifestyle and still do!
Growing up in tropical Papua New Guinea
My sisters and I off to school in Madang, Papua New Guinea.
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.
My parents, sisters and I in Madang, Papua New Guinea; I’m wearing my ‘sun-safe’ attire and my sisters are in regular swimsuits.
On our boat with Dad – me in a t-shirt and sisters in regular swimwear.
It wasn’t really ideal for a sun-sensitive redhead growing up in tropical climates where we spent every spare minute by the beach, on islands and in pools; despite a love of the lifestyle, 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, particularly in my teenage years.
On a boat with a family friend – me in a t-shirt and sisters (& mum) in regular swimwear.
Madang, Papua New Guinea.
I had a few minor cases of sunburn throughout my childhood (despite my parents’ best efforts!) and always wore sunscreen while out in the sun, however the following examples from my 20s 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 visited the aptly-named Fire Island while living in New York and decided to chill out one day by the beach, under a tree, in the shade, on a cloudy day… despite being in the shade I got so terribly burnt… 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 – Japanese people are typically very sun-aware and are very good at covering their skin any time they head outdoors; most wear gloves while driving and can be commonly seen carrying UV umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun’s 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. I lived in Japan for three years and not once saw a Japanese person lying on the beach tanning themselves. Tanning is not ‘cool’ in Japan – if you go to Japan be sure to take your own sunscreen!
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 sunscreen has come a long way in the past decade so our ability to protect our skin has improved, though some sunscreens are more effective than others and people don’t often know how much sunscreen they should apply or how often.
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 skin issues started to show in my 20s; I had many sun 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 skin flaring up during skin cancer treatment on my chest
I’ve also had to treat my entire forehead and also my back with these topical skin cancer treatments; treatments are so painful, uncomfortable and of course I didn’t want to leave the house – I looked like an alien as you’ll see in these photos of me, mid-treatment.
Skin cancer treatment on my forehead and back
These days I take as much care as I can to protect myself in the sun; I ensure I always:
- wear sun cream every day on my face and neck/chest area + my hands, before leaving the house each morning.
- carry extra (reef-safe) sun-cream in my purse and in the car
- keep a spare hat + a scarf in my car just in case I get caught out and need to cover my head/shoulders, especially in summer
- avoid sun exposure in the middle of the day
- wear my sun-safe swimwear any time I swim
My grandfather unfortunately passed away due to a melanoma in his late 60s, and my father recently had two melanomas removed.
I had 5 BCCs removed from my back again recently so my battle is on-going and probably always will be.
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.
Skin cancer is a global epidemic – 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!
This article was written by Tribe Tropical‘s Founder 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.