I was running at Leslie Spit on Sunday, just reveling in the sunshine and mudluscious sense of Spring, and ran into Sarah from our Bike Rally Team zipping like the wind on her bike. I made it to the lighthouse — I’m so HAPPY! I said. And ran off.
I don’t think there’s a more elevated moment for people in Toronto than that first day when we trust that the sun is nesting in to stay for a while. We feel warm outside for the first time after grey months of clenching ourselves tight. We’re practically giddy, and suddenly everything seems possible.
I have always been a half-assed winter runner, even when I was a serious marathoner, but I love running in the heat. Some of the most indelible runs I’ve had were completely elemental, me and the sun and my feet and that moment where you fix on a brief pop of shade ahead and feel utter relief as you flick through it, stop for a moment underneath it.
I’ve had the privilege of sun-running all over the world — the flat August cornfields near my family’s Southwestern Ontario cottage where I dodged surprised dogs and had to ask farmers for water… a dirt road in the Pantanal in Brazil, surrounded by capybaras, dozens of species of waterbirds and — literally — a dozen caimans sprawled in the road (think: large alligators!)… along the ocean in Capetown, where my sunscreen burnt off halfway out and I started asking the few strangers I met if they had sunscreen (they didn’t)… through the white hot plains of the ancient temples of Bagan in Myanmar, where I was chased by a pack of wild dogs… an infusion of much needed sun mid-January along the beach in Santa Barbara.
Being with myself and the sun and heat and my body is my set point of happiness. I feel empty of anything but how I am calibrating my pace, my water, my movements…. flooded with well-being, with absolute presence and joy. It’s about Vitamin D, I’m sure, but it’s also about something much more spiritual for me — I’m outside, moving my body, taking in the power of the sun, as fully me as I can be.
Last year, the week of my 50th birthday, I was hiking with my friend L in Big Sur, California. L grew up in Southern California and feels the same way I do about sun. And then a few years ago, she had several squamous cell lesions, the second most common skin cancer. Treatments were miserable, and she’s had to learn to wear big hats, makeup instead of a tan. On our hike, we stopped halfway up a hill to bask and meditate for a while. She sat in the shade, I gloried in the sun.
When we got back to her house, I mentioned a bump on my nose I’d had for about a year, off and on.. “You should get that looked at,” she said. “Looks like it might be a basal cell.”
I had noticed that there was a lump on the side of my nose that basically looked like a zit under the skin. It became more noticeable when I was in the sun, and seemed to fade when I went back to grey winter Toronto.
It turned out that L was right, and I had a textbook basal cell on the left side of my nose. This is the most common kind of skin cancer (about 56,000 cases per year in Canada), and almost never metastasizes. Basal cell and squamous cell are considered “nonmelanoma” skin cancers — they usually don’t spread to other parts of your body, but they can grow and cause serious disfigurement. And, it’s still cancer, and a kind of indicator of how your body responds to Things that Go Wrong; women who have nonmelanoma skin cancers are 26% more likely to develop another form of cancer.
Skin cancer is on the rise in Canada (and everywhere), as Sam eloquently wrote about here. We kind of joke about it — a friend said last week “I got a tan this weekend, my dermatologist would hate me.” But we should be paying attention when we hurl ourselves outside to move our bodies.
My basal cell treatment was more invasive than I expected. On your nose, the preferred treatment is something called Mohs, a micro-surgery where the surgeon removes several layers of skin, tests the edges in a lab on site to make sure all the cancer cells are gone, then continues to remove layers to minimize the incision while making sure all the cancerous cells are gone. Then they rebuild the site.
I ended up with 18 sutures in my nose by the end of the procedure, and I felt invaded. It was the first time in my life I took serious painkillers. And it made me super self-conscious for months as the actual site and the two repair flaps healed.
The photo on the left is about 3 weeks after the surgery — after removal of the sewed on cotton ball and the sutures. In a nutshell, it was painful and gross — and made me feel very NotLovely and very vulnerable.
I walked out of the my last consultation with the dermatologist with a pile of sunscreen and some clear direction to avoid mid-day sun. But I’m still struggling with both trying to look after myself and trying to be in the joy I take in lifting my face to the light, moving my body until sweat glistens off me.
Since my basal cell experience, I’ve been sunlit in Uganda, Istanbul, Spain, Vietnam and on long rides and runs in the Ontario summer. I can work up quite a tan when it’s 39 C, even when I’m wearing a hat and three layers of sunscreen, equivalent to 90spf. I just really like to be outside.
When people say ‘were you away? you look tan,’ I now feel anxious. People keep telling me that they can’t see the scar from my surgery, but I can feel the little bump, and it gets darker in the sun — and more than that, I now see all of the other sun damage on my hands and my cheekbones, and my freckled, wrinkled chest, which looks 10 years older than the rest of me. (I’ve taken to calling it Aunt Shirley).
My answer is to keep running — to love the sun and the way it heals — AND protect myself. And I’m a bit of evangelist now to tell you to do the same. There’s a perception that most of the sun damage that shows up in our 40s is from burns as kids, but sun damage is cumulative, and only 23% of our exposure is before the age of 18. Start where you are, love the sun, and look after your skin:
- use broad spectrum sunscreen, even when it’s cloudy, and apply it often; using a sunscreen that protects both from UVA and UVB rays is more important than the spf factor
- if you’re riding or running far, sun sleeves are a great idea
- do what the kids do and put on a sun shirt and a geeky hat, especially when you’re on the water
- find the bliss of early morning or early evening runs or rides
If you’re tempted to forget, post a selfie of yourself running in the sun on Facebook, and my mom will remind you to wear sunscreen.