Battling the Sun

So, in my last post I kinda alluded to the fact that I had multiple secrets. The first one wasn’t major or earth shattering. The second one could have been. I am sharing this post despite my results because I think it is something important that all of use (endurance athletes and non-athletes) need to be aware of and we don’t talk enough about it.

I realized Saturday, driving over one of the many causeways in South Florida watching the sun rise over the shrimp boats and the bridge, I have grown to love my southern home. But as beautiful as that purpley, pink, orange sunrise was – the sun is the enemy. Not just for me, the Irish, German, fair-haired Italian with white skin that scorches in an instant… but all of us. It is a great thing to have a tan year round in the Sunshine State. But we must be more aware and protect ourselves from the harmful effects that go with it.

I am a very fair individual. I have had blistering sunburns more times that I can count – even while wearing SPF 50. While not a red-head, my Irish, German, and English heritage outweigh the Italian. I will admit as a teenager there were many time I laid out by the pool without sunscreen – I would make it about 20 minutes before I was pink with a burn. Today, there are times where I head out on the bike or for a run after 6pm without sunscreen.

After this experience, I will no longer do either.

I had the epitome of a bad experience at the dermatologist’s office a week and a half ago. I’ve been going to a dermatologist since I was a freshman in college because that’s when cystic acne decided to take over my face. At the time the Dr would check me over during every visit (1 every 6 months) since I live in Florida and went to college at the beach. After college, I moved and found another dermatologist who did the same. The difference being I asked this particular dermatologist about a birthmark I have that appeared to be changing color. At that time, I was told not to worry about it. I since stopped going to that doctor and found other non-prescription ways to deal with my acne. A few weeks ago, I noticed the color change in my birthmark had become a texture change. I knew enough to know that was not good. I made an appointment with a new dermatologist and didn’t think anything else of it.

Upon arriving at the Drs office, I will admit I was nervous to hear what the Dr had to say but I never expected what actually happened. While doing a scan he found a ‘mole’, that I’ve had forever, and didn’t like the color. After arguing with me about how long it had been there (why do doctors do that?) I told him if it was concerning there was no point discussing how long it had been there, just run the test. Thankfully he didn’t find anything else suspicious. Once he was done with the scan, I sat down for him to look at the birthmark on the back of my right ankle. I explained to him that the color change had been like that for many years but recently I had noticed it had become raised and if pressure was applied to that location, you feel something underneath. I knew this meant things had been progressing for a while. As I sat there and he pushed and prodded, my anxiety came back in full swing, the office was freezing but I was sweating like I had just been out for a long run.

Finally, the Dr came up for air and decided to share his findings. He started off by explaining that he would be doing a biopsy and while the timing for the biopsy on my hand was negotiable, this one was not. I was to be prepped for a biopsy immediately. Enter more sweating and the ‘rising red’ that starts at the back of my neck and creeps up to my cheeks. The short version is that in this Dr’s perspective I had been letting something that is potentially dangerous go since the time that I asked the last dermatologist about my birthmark many years ago. Where I was at during my most recent visit, was a place that my new Dr found extremely concerning. We didn’t argue about a biopsy this time.  Enter again the anxiety, how I avoided the hyper ventilating I’m not really sure. I managed to ask him how this biopsy would be different from the one on my hand and what it meant for not only training but physical therapy. He explained it would be a large biopsy that would require stitches and all forms of exercise were a no-go for the next two weeks for fear of popping stitches.

I knew this was for my own good so I sucked it up. I was very upset that I couldn’t even do physical therapy but you win some and you lose some. This was something that needed to be taken care of better to do it now than wait and have it get worse. So I told him to get on it before I did start to hyper ventilate from the anxiety.

The problem with the next series of steps that any doctor would take is that I used to work in the medical field. I don’t often tell doctors this because I find it to my advantage to let them speak doctorese in front of me. So, the next step was for the Dr to order the nurse to set up a 3mm punch kit – I didn’t hear the rest. I knew that this meant I was about to get a 3 mm wide god knows how deep chunk taken out of my leg. No wonder stitches were required. It also means that there was so much change in my birthmark, that he was about to extract 80% of it. No bueno. The nurse, used a local anesthetic to numb the area around my birthmark. It hurt like hell, I felt like my ankle was on fire. I squealed and then cried. I think I scared the crap out of the nurse…literally. Numbing my hand went much easier, the doctor came in and preformed the biopsy’s in less than 5 minutes and it was over.

But really it was only the beginning. The psychology of it all was just starting to crash down on me. I felt cheated and angry that I could have had this taken care of years ago but was advised it wasn’t a problem. I felt guilty that I had been pushing off the HB’s concerns about the color. I felt the overwhelming fear of what having the results come back positive would actually mean for me.

This carried on over the next week. What affected me even more was the fact that normally I would go run or pound out my emotions during a training session with my SISTAS but for this…even that was off-limits. I did a lot of research and reading. I took a lot of calls from my mother. I replied to texts from my girlfriends. Doing all that research and reading made me realize why the Dr was so concerned. Every symptom of advanced melanoma was represented in my case, except the open wound. So I resolved myself to the fact that surgery and blood tests would follow and it was likely I would not compete in the Naples Fitness Triathlon.

In addition to all the research I did on skin cancer I also started researching sunscreen. I was shocked to learn that most commercial sunscreens do not adequately protect against UVA rays. They do wonders for UVB but the A is what cause cellular changes known to lead to skin cancer. So I ordered a bunch of UPF clothing to wear during long bike rides and runs and those days when we spend too long at the beach with friends. I also found new products for sunscreen and a moisturizer with sunscreen. I realize none of this will change the outcome but hopefully it will help to ensure I don’t have to go through this again anytime soon. I encourage everyone to carefully consider the amount of time they spend in the sun and don’t go unprotected. Even standing in the parking lot taking after a meeting increases your exposure. I think we often think we run or ride so early that it doesn’t matter. But it does, exposure is exposure. Take Care. Slather up and cover up, throw your vanity out the window.

After all this, I called the Drs office multiple times on Friday to get my  results. Finally at 4:30 they called. It was good news, while I did meet many of the criteria (color, depth, size) for skin cancer my cells showed I didn’t have any. I practically leapt out of my chair! I still need to have my birthmark removed. It is so atypical that they would have to test every change from here on out to be sure it wasn’t something dangerous. I would rather just have one more round of stitches than many. So I scheduled my surgery – for after my race. And as I prepared to volunteer at a practice Tri for my sistas on Saturday morning I slathered on the new sunscreen, got out my visor, and my polarized sunglasses and felt a little better knowing that I was doing the right thing.

I felt even better when I got home 4 hours later and wasn’t even pink from standing on the race course! My experience was a learning lesson rather than another dive into depression. I encourage everyone to learn from my anxiety ridden experience. There are things you can do now to save you from this later. Whether you join me in living in the Sunshine State or reside in Seattle. Put on that sunscreen, find clothing that protects you from the sun, keep a visor on hand – and for my fellow blue eye beauties get some polarized sunglasses. I hope my anxiety keeps you from event having to share in my experience.

Now get out there and enjoy!


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