Hindsight Isn't 20/20: Hindsight is SPF

It’s January, and I really don’t enjoy winter in the least. Our winters in the South are pretty mild, but any day below 50 degrees grates on my nerves and sends me into a tanning bed spiral. Tanning beds are so warm. The gentle hum as they begin to heat up and the UV rays begin to radiate across your skin is one of the most calming and relaxing sounds you can hope for at the end of a long day at work or a stressful day at school. The more I sit huddled on my couch on these dreary winter days, the more I miss the way a tanning bed wraps you up in a great big cocoon of warmth and gently rocks you to sleep if you let it. Sounds pretty good, huh? Trust me, you do not want to go there.

Quitting my tanning addiction

At the age of 33, I was diagnosed with melanoma and told by my dermatologist that I needed to stop my beloved tanning cold turkey. No questions asked. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. No more tanning. Period. My dermatologist made it quite clear in the spring of 2007-that time of year I was just getting geared up for multiple visits to the tanning salon per week-my skin was severely sun-damaged. Before my skin had the chance to wrinkle on its own, I had endured four different surgeries for skin cancers. Little did I know, there was much more headed my direction in the way of treatments, scarring, and biopsies.

The real price to pay for tanning

My reality, and it could be yours as well, is that I am spending much more time in my mid-40s taking preventative measures and treating the neverending onslaught of precancerous lesions than I ever spent enjoying the perceived benefits of a tan. Those evenings spent stretched out across rows of rapidly heating bulbs were fleeting moments that quickly paved the way for a lifetime’s worth of copays at a dermatologist, yearly treatments of topical chemotherapy, and regular skin checks that wear on my nerves and fill me on a regular basis with self doubt.

Sure, I gleaned some fleeting satisfaction from those days I walked around smelling ever-so-faintly of scorched flesh with heat emanating from my freckled and reddening flesh-I was “tan.” (I know, right? I’m cringing, too.) Were those days worth the worry of regular biopsies? Nope. Not in the least.

Tanning booth regret

When I was reaching into the backseat to grab my tanning accelerator before heading into the tanning salon, I should have been reaching for a bottle of sunscreen. When I was shopping for the tank top with the skinny straps that would allow the maximum amount of sun to hit my shoulders, I should have been shopping for a wide-brimmed hat. All the days I spent with my version of tanned skin ultimately pale in comparison to the number of days I have spent regretting there was not more SPF in my life prior to 2007.

Changing priorities

I used to be so proud when my white tank tops and summery pastel tops seemed to glow against my dark red skin. (I never really tanned, as it were. I just grew redder, but that’s a story for another day.) Now, funny enough, I’m just proud when I see my dermatologist and I leave without the dreaded blasts from the canister of liquid nitrogen. Isn’t it strange how much your priorities change after being presented with a life-threatening diagnosis? Strange doesn’t do it justice.

Make the right choice for your future

Once upon a time, I gave little thought to the way I treated my body. Today, I wake up thankful every day my decision to tan caught up with me, smacked me square in the face a few times, and whirled me around by the shoulders to face my future head-on. In retrospect, I haven’t given up as much as I once believed.

There was a time following my initial diagnosis when I was devastated over more than just my doctor’s words-I was in mourning for a lifestyle to which I had grown accustomed. I longed for what I saw as a simple, harmless pleasure. Tanning turned to awakening, and awakening turned to paying. Allow me to tell you before you learn the hard way-a life fighting sun damage is a life making payments on a bill that never decreases. The cost of skin cancer far outweighs a relaxing 20 minutes spent slathered in coconut-scented lotion warming up on a winter afternoon or the pleasure of a sideways glance in the mirror at a pair of tan legs.

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