Maui After Melanoma

“Scars are not injuries, Tanner Sack. A scar is a healing. After injury, a scar is what makes you whole.” ― China Miéville, The Scar

For me, now, being in the sun is an experiment in balance. At first I was going to write an “experiment in avoidance,” but no, I am learning to live with the sun, not avoid it. I am learning to feel whole.

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As many of you already know, in the spring of 2011 I received a diagnosis of malignant melanoma (a deadly form of skin cancer, the only potentially deadly form of skin cancer) on my right shin. I had a small, dark mole that itched and for my yearly mole check I had it biopsied. Three days later, the result came back: malignant melanoma, in situ (which basically means, it hadn’t spread to my lymphatic system).  I had surgery to remove the mole and about a 5 cm diameter disc of tissue around it. Now my right shin looks like it has a circular burn on it; it has a slight indentation and it’s pink in color.

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The surgeon (and my dermatologist) told me that basically my being in the sun was a thing of the past — and that I could still go to Maui and swim with the fishies and turtles, but that I’d have to avoid the sun. The surgeon said, “No laying out in the sun. You will not be going to Hawaii anymore and coming back with a sun tan.”

So here I am in Hawaii, for the first time since my diagnosis and surgery, and I’m finding myself balancing both gratitude and sadness, though gratitude is sure winning.

3 Things That Make Me Sad:

1. I miss that feeling of being immersed in sun, soaking in vitamin D like I saw an older woman on Ka’anapali Beach doing this morning, smiling at the sun, facing it fully, allowing her skin to be touched by it and loving every moment. It was like her body was doing a complete “ahhhh.” I teared up a bit as my body memory kicked in and I remembered that feeling of sun saturation, of delight in light on the skin. And to be honest, I do miss having sun-kissed skin, a little freckle mask across my nose and cheeks, and a visual reminder of where I’ve been.

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2. I don’t enjoy having to avoid being outside in the middle of the day. The sun is the strongest between 10am and 2pm, so I am getting my swims in before 10:00AM and after 3:00PM when the sun is at a low angle. Today I watched all the kids body surfing and playing in the waves in the early afternoon and I so wanted to join them. There were giggles galore and wipe-outs that caused one man to lose his teeny-tiny speedos. I watched from the sidelines like a kid at recess wanting someone to ask me to play.

3. It’s different swimming in long sleeves and pants.  These 50+ SPF goodies are great and keep me protected, but once I’m wet, they’re heavy and soggy and cold. I wear a swimsuit under them, so I can take them off to dry off in the shade, but it’s cold and I’m cold. As a kid I came to Maui many times and in those days we used 5 SPF or 8 SPF.  I burned a lot as a kid — and “browned like a nut” as my grandmother Grace liked to say — but at the time it was seen as just a byproduct of tropical play. (Does anyone out there remember 2 SPF like I do?) When I was very young, I didn’t wear a top. The freedom to wear so few pieces of clothing is so clear in my memory that having to pile on layers has felt a bit constricting.

10 Things I Am Grateful For:

1. My good health (and life!).  Thank goodness I caught the melanoma early. Thank goodness I have a heath care team that looks after every little mole and freckle on my body.

2. The resources to travel to Maui at all!  What a realization of privilege — one that I don’t take for granted for one minute.  Today at our “Welcome Breakfast” at the hotel, the emcee asked for people to state how many times they’ve been to Hawaii. There were some new comers, some who had been here a few times. Walter pointed to me and when the emcee asked, I heard myself say “20.” Whoa. Yes. It’s the truth. How fortunate I am.

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3. Respite. Over the years, laying in the sun for longer than 15 minutes felt too hot, too oppressive. The shade is quite lovely and I even allow myself dappled sunlight spots for short periods, especially if the trade winds are feeling a little cool. There is a sweet yin aspect to shade-bathing. Shall I coin that term for all of us shade dwellers?

4. Those 50+ SPF outfits are rather stylish and when I’m on the beach I feel like an athlete, like I should be hauling some big paddle board or surf board.

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5. No more sunburns! There’s nothing worse than being in paradise with a scathing sunburn. No sunburns = healthier skin, less chance of more skin cancer, and no pain!

6. My husband is a shady guy — you know, he likes the shade, too!  When he’s in the sun he usually doesn’t put any sunscreen on (until this trip, ahem), but he prefers the shade and the dancing leaves and palm fronds above us.

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7. The tropical air is saturated with sun energy, so I pretend that I am soaking it up through my pores without having to be in direct sunlight. As soon as we walked off the plane in Kahului, I felt the moist, warm tropical air and said to myself, “I am thankful for this air!”

8. Light. With blue sky and sun virtually every day, my rods and cones of my eyes get a lovely dose of S.A.D.-proofing light.

9. Birds. The birds here do a dance with the sun, too. They’re smart. They know when to hide in the bushes and in the shady tree canopies during the heat of the day and when to emerge during the early morning hours and in the late afternoon. I figure since I’m pretty much part bird, I should follow their example and I am grateful for their wisdom.

10. Awareness. As many health challenges do, my melanoma made me more aware of how I interact with the sun. I see many people here in Hawaii, light-skinned folks, with iron-on sunburns and I think “ouch ouch ouch” on so many levels. Having the awareness that cancer brought me has enabled me to be creative with my relationship to the sun — to that “ongoing nuclear explosion in the sky” as my husband likes to call it. Mindfulness is always good and I am grateful to have an awareness of where I stop and where the sun begins.

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About Courtney Putnam

I first came to healing work through art and writing. Creating collage art and poetry in particular allowed me to deeply understand the benefit of self-expression in the healing process. But, I also began to see the benefit of bodywork (manual work in the form of massage and energywork in the form of Reiki) as keys to unlocking the emotional stresses we hold in our bodies. I became a Reiki practitioner in 2002, received an MFA in Creative Writing in 2003, received my massage license in the spring of 2006, and became a Reiki Master in 2010. In my practice I bring together these three areas -- the body, the mind, and the spirit (or energy body) -- so others may experience profound and positive change in their lives.
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4 Responses to Maui After Melanoma

  1. monk-monk says:

    When I was in India, there was a saying “only mad-dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” because of how direct and hot it was.

    I can totally relate to your long-sleeves at the beach feeling. I grew up with a dermatologist grandpa, and we were always the nerdy kids wearing t-shirts and shorts and hats at the beach. I remember that soggy cold feeling well! He loosened up as we got older, but I always put on sunscreen. His suggestion was sunscreen with titanium dioxide in it…it makes your skin all white because it never fully rubs in, but he said it was like ‘t-shirt for the face.’

    Hope you’re having fun on your trip!

    -Jenna

  2. Jenna, I love that saying from India. Just love it!

    And what an experience you had growing up with sun protection monitoring! In my post I forgot to even write about sunscreen. I do indeed lather it on, though it’s taken me over two years to find sunscreens I am *not* allergic to. I love that image of the titanium dioxide on your face being like a t-shirt, too. We all have our sun stories, don’t we. That would be an interesting anthology!

    all the best,
    Courtney

  3. inspire1life says:

    So glad it was caught early and you are healed.
    Thank you for the gentle reminder. I am leaving for Maui in 5 days – my first time there. I will think of you and your post as I cake on the sunscreen, sit in the shade and be grateful that I am healthy and able to travel and experience the world in all its beauty.

  4. Enjoy your trip to Maui! It is a magical place, indeed! Take in the fragrant, warm air and know you are being embraced by the island’s beauty!

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