I no longer worship the sun, now I worship my skin | HerCanberra

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I no longer worship the sun, now I worship my skin

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I never had the opportunity to know my father.

What I do know I pulled together from stories told to me: I know he was tall, I know he had eyes the colour of an Australian summer sky. And I know he died after stage 4 melanoma spread to his bones in his 30s. 

At the age of 12, sitting with my school skirt pulled as high as I dared, pale legs stretching out in the sun, I wasn’t worried about the last fact. Like the characters in the fairy-tale book he left me, he was made up from scraps of my imagination. What had hurt him couldn’t hurt me; it was just a sad story.

I wanted to be golden and brown like the girls I saw in magazines and movies, so I’d put on a bikini, stretch out in the hot sun and try to tan. I remember spending hours in my backyard, sweat rolling off me, feeling proud of the angry, red sunburn because it meant once it healed, I’d be one step closer to being beautiful.

I did have a basic understanding that each burn was damage done but that didn’t matter, I didn’t need SPF or a hat. What had hurt him couldn’t hurt me. 

But cancer likes to take hostages. Just before my 16th birthday my mum, who had raised me by herself after losing her partner, noticed something wrong with a freckle on the back of her leg.  For as long as I could remember she’d always had this freckle, but it’d changed, become darker and bigger. It was stage 3 melanoma and while I lay in the sun and walked around without a hat because I wanted blonder hair, she was trying to figure out how to tell me. In the end, I figured it out myself after seeing her Google search history.

The seriousness of the situation didn’t strike me until much later. I was scared, I was confused but I didn’t cry until I told my best friend. We walked around the oval at school, the beginnings of summer heat kissing our unprotected skin. I think I got sunburnt that day.

You never realise how strong your parents truly are until you have to watch them go through something like this. My mum has always been a fighter, but underneath the surface, I couldn’t shake the feeling she was just as scared as I was when she broke the news she would have to go to Sydney for surgery to remove the mole and some lymph nodes in her leg.  

That broke the floodgates as every worst-case scenario ran through my head. I wasn’t allowed to stay with her and it broke my heart as I drove back to Canberra. When she finally came home on Christmas Eve, we hugged each other and cried. 

My mum spent days in pain, days frustrated and furious with the world but five years later, we finally received the all-clear. We had been lucky, she didn’t need chemotherapy, but she did have a significant part of the muscle in her leg removed. She hates the scar, calling it ugly but she’s still here and that’s what matters to me.

I’m ashamed to say even after her operation I still ventured outside without basic sun protection until the end of 2019 when another possible melanoma was found on my mum’s nose. Watching the heartbreak on her face, the scream of ‘it’s not fair’ in her eyes when the topic of possibly having it cut out arose is what finally got under my skin.

The irony is, a year later, it literally did. In 2020 a small and cute freckle on my stomach suddenly became petrifying as it grew larger and darker. 

At first, I watched it, blaming its change on everything but the possibility of cancer, exclaiming “It’s FINE” when panic started to tickle my thoughts. Then finally after months of procrastination, I went to the doctor to have a skin check. 

I never thought it would happen to me but a week later I anxiously waited for the biopsy result with stitches in my stomach. The doctor said the scar would resemble a pregnancy stretch mark if I didn’t need more to be removed. 

In the end, I was lucky as the results came back marked as ‘pre-cancerous.’ However, if I had left it–as I wanted to–things might have been different. 

Now, mum has had another melanoma surgically extracted from her shoulder and is waiting to have another one removed from her ankle.

What hurt my dad didn’t end up hurting me, but it still hurts someone else I dearly love and it took me years to realise the emotional and physical impacts she still faces. That’s what I found the most devastating when, for a brief moment in time, I faced the same fight. 

As the summer continues I no longer mark my success with red skin but rather the absence of it. Instead of worshiping forced golden skin, I romanticise the way my legs match the white seashells on the hot sand. 

I still love the Australian sun, but now I keep it at a distance. 

I hope my dad would be proud.

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