A public service video produced a few years ago and making the rounds again this year hits me close to home. Produced by the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund and called Dear 16-Year-Old Me, the video warns of the dangers of melanoma and the importance of sun smarts and mole checks.
When I was 21, I had just recently returned from a year living in Israel, where I attended Hebrew University. One morning in Vancouver as summer was winding down, I was flipping through the Vancouver Sun at my parents’ kitchen table and paused on a full-page feature about melanoma.
I glanced over at my right forearm. I had long had a mole there, but now I noticed the mole contained one of the warning signs of melanoma: rather than being a uniform brown, it had a darker spot on a medium-brown background. Overcoming my fear of needles and scalpels, I insisted that my family doctor remove the mole.
A week later, back in Montreal for my final year of university at McGill, I received a call from my parents that I should make an appointment with a plastic surgeon as soon as possible. The biopsy results had come back and I indeed had malignant melanoma, thankfully only to a depth of 0.4 millimetres – so far. I was more scared than I’d ever been. One of my best friends scooped me up that evening for a distracting sojourn on St. Laurent Boulevard.
A few days later, I left my flat in the McGill Ghetto and went to the Jewish General Hospital. My surgeon, the late Dr. Jack Cohen, was a much-admired member of the medical profession in Montreal. He was also an excellent amateur whistler, and I asked him to whistle through the surgery to help calm my nerves. He warmly complied before leaving me with a formidable scar: a small price to pay for saving my life.
That night, swaddled and bandaged, I walked over to the McGill Arts Building to hear Canadian author Michael Ondaatje read from his latest novel. As the evening closed, the painkillers began to wear off.
My friends and family know that because of my melanoma history, I am much less fancy-free when it comes to summer fun than many of my fellow Canadians who are desperate for sunlight after our country’s seemingly endless winters.
I take care to wear hats and sunscreen (I seek out favorite brands and stick to them). I constantly seek out shade. I don’t sunbathe. I don’t turn my face to the sun and quip about needing vitamin D; instead, I take oral supplements.
As for sun-smart clothes, this season’s “maxi dress” fashion trend has helped a little. And, with the recent development of vitiligo on parts of my body, my vanity helps me want to avoid the sun for the cosmetic goal of keeping an even skin tone, as well.
When I’m feeling sarcastic, I joke that my Zionism – given the first of three years I spent in Israel – gave me melanoma. Sometimes, I look wistfully at the last photograph of my pre-surgery arm, my near-deadly mole visible as I sport a large backpack, smiling for the camera while waiting for the Egged bus from Jerusalem to take me to kibbutz Urim, one of my favorite weekend hangouts.
When I’m feeling ironic, I think about how the religious laws of modesty that I often privately disdain are actually very prudent for protecting the body from the dangers of the sun’s rays. It is for the reason of modest dress, researchers have inferred, that Palestinian citizens of Israel develop melanoma at lower rates than that of Jewish Israelis.
When I’m feeling especially cautious – which is always, when summer comes – I’m careful to apply sunscreen to my kids each morning. No one said that the sticky, daily ritual was fun. But it’s important.
I try not to saddle my kids with more fear than they deserve to have in their innocent years. Life is scary, and we need to protect ourselves where we can.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. This article was originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.