"We Got Your Test Results Back, And You Have A Malignant Basal Cell Carcinoma."
“Hi, is this Miss Isabelle Furth? We got your test results back, and you have a malignant basal cell carcinoma. We need to schedule surgery.”
I sat up as my dorm room tunneled and my eyesight blurred, automatic tears pooling in my eyes before cascading down my face. I'm going to die, I thought.
Later, I Googled "basal cell carcinoma skin cancer" and found SkinCancer.org, where statistics were displayed in bullet points. I learned how basal cells are the most common form of skin cancer. I also learned how they're rarely fatal, but “can be highly disfiguring if allowed to grow.” I have the deadly trifecta: pale white skin, pale blonde hair, and pale green eyes. Again and again, the website reassured me that it is quite common. Common, that is, for older people. I was 18, and I was scared, and I was pissed.
Two weeks later, I shifted uncomfortably on a cold metal operating table and tried to block out the fluorescent lights from the ceiling. I breathed slowly in and out of my mouth, to avoid the smell of my blood being cauterized. The nurse helped hold the skin on my clavicle taut while the surgeon sliced with his scalpel. I felt a tear leak from the left corner of my left eye and trail down my cheek, making a spot on my paper nightgown. I was occasionally forced to open my eyes and acknowledge my handsome surgeon, and couldn't help but notice his lack of freckles, wrinkles, or imperfections.
I attempted to relax by imagining myself on my friend's floating dock in the Savannah River back in high school. Each day, we'd spend hours picking out our bathing suits, in case the older guys would drive by on a boat. I toned down my loquaciousness and didn't ask them if they were cognizant that their intentions were nefarious. Instead, I giggled and drawled, “y'all,” rolling my shorts up and cocking my head to the side, so that my long blonde hair caught the light and their attention. My friends and I were all uniformly blonde and tan, and we knew that was what made us so attractive to them.
If I had cared less about my looks, maybe I wouldn't have been quite as depressed as I was when my surgeon handed me a mirror after the operation. He was proud of his work. He'd gotten rid of the cancer. But that hardly mattered to me. All I saw was a horribly raised scar almost two inches long right across my collarbone, with severely dark stitches laced through. I'm not pretty anymore, I thought. There was a large bandage over the scar site all throughout Christmas and New Year's. It would stay on for three weeks, and when I removed it, I cried some more, because the scar was still there.
Six months later, I went for a checkup. I had found something scaly on my scalp a few weeks before that bled when I scratched it. Turns out, I had another basal cell carcinoma.
The day of my second surgery, I watched the clock diligently. They had to shave part of my blonde hair, and I watched, transfixed by the sight of my long curls — my identity — falling to the floor around me. Of course, this scar, much larger than the first, can be hidden by a change in my hair part, but I know that it's there.
When I first confronted my scars, I thought that no one would ever consider me beautiful again. In our society, tan is a prerequisite for pretty. I'll never be tan again. I now hoard sunscreen and wear hats. I become anxious when I realize that I'll be exposed to the sun for long periods of time. My own mother didn't want to include me on a family trip to the Caribbean, because she was worried that my skin couldn't handle it. Sometimes, I want to go back to the dock and sprawl out in the Southern sun, letting it brown me. I miss the way that I looked when I was a carefree, blonde, tan teenager in Georgia. I miss the way that I felt even more.
“But you look good pale,” people say. “You pull it off.”
Alas, I don't really have a choice. I watch as my friends tan themselves for the sake of societal norms, and I try to warn them. You'll get skin cancer, like me. You'll have scars and you'll hate them, or you might die from skin cancer, like I might. They mostly roll their eyes and say they have darker skin, but any change in skin color is a manifestation of damage to the skin cells beneath the surface. There's only so much I can say, though, so I remain on my proverbial high horse, making sure to sit underneath an umbrella.
For now, I wake up and apply my makeup like I always have, except I use shade 001 – Pale Ivory or Porcelain. Sometimes, I don't wear any makeup at all. With time has come the recognition that I can still be pretty, with or without tan skin, but I won't be forever. No one is. The more that I remind myself of that, the less I care.
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