Person wearing a hoodie and cap with differing speech bubbles around them

Awkward Skin Cancer Moments and How to Handle Them

It was the first warm day of spring in the northeast and I made my way to Centerport, NY, to photograph my favorite bald eagle pair and their three eaglets. I was covered head to toe with lightweight sun-protective clothing and a hat. My hoodie shirt was pulled over my head to protect my ears and the back of my neck. It was close to 90 degrees and it was only a matter of time.

Comments from strangers about the way I was dressed

“Do you think it’s winter?”
“All you need is a parka to complete the look!”
“Do you own shorts?”

An opportunity to talk about skin cancer

Now, I must tell you that these folks are fairly new to me and didn’t know my story. I saw this as an opportunity to talk about safe skin care practices and guide the conversation. I had a myriad of responses that I could cluster into groups.

Types of responses

  • The Mocker- A few folks simply made fun of me and my appearance and it didn’t seem to matter what I said about melanoma. I didn’t spend much time with these people. It felt kind of hurtful, so I moved on.
  • The Topper- A few folks immediately shifted the conversation to themselves or related my situation to something in their lives. They didn’t really want to listen and felt the need to “top” my story with their life experiences. If I had skin cancer, they had “real” cancer. If I had melanoma, they had lymphoma or some other really terrible “oma”. I didn’t feel the need to spend a lot of time in this arena. I felt a little minimized.
  • The Expert- I had one or two people who seemed to know everything about everything about skin cancer. This was fine as long as what they were saying was accurate. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I feel like I have a decent grasp on this subject matter. When a healthy dialogue was possible, these became good conversations as long as they were from a learning posture.
  • The Sarcastic Storyteller- These folks kept me at a distance through diversionary tactics like sarcasm and their tales of terrible sunburns on their Florida spring break trips during their college years. I could tell that talking about skin cancer made them feel uncomfortable and I didn’t want to be insensitive. I just let them know that I was available to chat about good skin care practices, if they wanted it.
  • The Empath- A few gracious folks were empathetic and wanted to understand my journey. They wanted to know more and engage in meaningful conversation. My appearance was a curiosity to them, which led to better understanding. I spent the greatest amount of time with these people and felt like I was making a difference. It felt like fertile soil for my advocacy efforts.
  • The Future Advocate- I did meet someone who identified with my story and wanted to get involved with skin cancer prevention and advocacy. These types of people need very little coaxing and seem ready to join the wider team of those who raise awareness for safe skin care practices. These folks have been few and far between, but worth the wait.

Often times one has to be a little thick-skinned when talking about skin cancer with others. Being a good listener helps and knowing that people are at different places in their understanding and knowledge goes a long way in getting the critically important message out there. If you handle it well, you might just win over a few and find them in SPF 50 hoodies by the Fourth of July.

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