In the past 4 months I’ve smeared chemo in cream form on my face, first the lower part of my face 2 times a day for 3 weeks, and then my forehead 2 times a day for 4 weeks. The lower part was harder because the skin is more tender. See photo. And while my face really hurt at the time, my skin healed within a week. Like new. Almost.
When I was a kid, we didn’t use sunscreen. On the contrary, my friends smeared baby oil on their faces, covered cardboard panels with aluminum foil, and turned their faces into silver sunflowers. I didn’t do that, but what I did was just as bad: I rowed. For hours and hours I exposed myself to sunlight and its reflection. And for my whole life, I’ve sat in the sun with only SPF 15 on when I knew better. Cavalier. “Skin cancer happens to old people,” I told myself. Doh.
It’s no wonder I have actinic keratosis. They start as little flaky spots that don’t go away. The treatment at first is to burn them off with liquid nitrogen, spot by spot. But the doctor said there were too many she could see and too many she couldn’t.
When people saw my skin that looked like acid melted it, they reacted in many ways. The hardest was the little girl in the airport who cried and ran for her mother. Smiling and saying, “It’s okay,” didn’t help. Go figure. When I told people what was going on, most referred to their grandparent doing “the peel.” (Old people get skin cancer.) The kindest was the response by two different men, one a homeless man, another an ex-con, I think, who said, “Be well,” and looked me in the eye. The people who might have had the least kindness shown to them showed me the greatest.
Kindness takes many forms. And taking care of my body may be one of the kindest acts I can do. Just recently I’ve learned about ACEs, the Adverse Childhood Experiences survey. Kaiser and the CDC conducted a massive study and linked childhood trauma to adult diseases. They came up with 10 questions to measure how rough a childhood was, and basically, the rougher the childhood, the higher the risk is for an adult to get diabetes, heart disease, cancer, lung disease (even if you don’t smoke), broken bones, stroke, and more. It does not link skin cancer with childhood trauma, I’m glad to say. And the study does not take into account elements of resilience and other positive factors in childhood. But my score was high, too high.
What I’m learning is that knowing how to protect myself from disease and actually doing what I know I should do (wear hats and SPF 30+), taking steps to understand my childhood and the effects of it (usually by writing poems and stories), and finding ways to strengthen my lungs, gut, and heart are forms of kindness that flow backwards and forwards, heal actively and retroactively. They are offerings, intentional acts of kindness for the many kindnesses I have been shown. Please be kind to yourself. Please. Be well.