Signs of a Good Life
When the little pink dome on my leg turned out to be cancer, I thought of myself, then other young women basking in the sun. Then I thought of my kids
I’m in the produce aisle of the grocery store, picking ingredients for a salad. It’s not long after I’ve had leg surgery to remove what turned out to be a malignant melanoma, and I’m still hobbling around. One tomato sits apart from the rest of the display, moved aside by some other shopper. I imagine that it looks up at me, embarrassed by its emerging age spots, so I do it a favor and turn it until only its good side shows.
The tomato was probably perfectly happy until a few days ago. Filled with potential, it arrived fresh off the vine ready to flavor sauces, top a salad, or stock a soup. And there’s me, basically a good person, give or take the vein of sarcasm that runs below the surface. I shuttle my kids from school to sports. I tutor, I vote, I coach. I make plans. This was my year to run a 5K, write a novel, become a Buddhist. You never know what life has in store for you.
I first saw the mole, which looked more like a little pink dome, on the front of my inner thigh when I was trying on bathing suits. Having already waded into my fourth decade, I thought, “Oh, maybe this is my first age spot.” No big deal. But since my medical philosophy is based on one crucial question—What would Woody (Allen) do?—I thought it was worth mentioning to my dermatologist. After giving the dome the once-over, we decided to go ahead and take it off. An invitation to carve off excess baggage from the inner front thigh cannot be passed up.
Two days later, my doctor called. “Well, we’re a good team,” she said. “Your mole was a malignant melanoma, but we got it early.” We are? We did? Every muscle in my body clenched, as I absorbed the shock. Had I just received good news or bad? Both. So of course I said what any people-pleaser would say—“That’s great. Thank you!”—when all I wanted to do was drop the F-bomb and yell, “Are you kidding? I have CANCER?” I’m too young. Too busy.
Skin cancer was something I thought could happen, but only when I was ninety. By then, all my friends would have had it, too, and we’d roll through the halls of our assisted-living compound showing off our dermatological war wounds. Apparently, I am an early bloomer. The word melanoma may sound like a cosmic event or a fruit smoothie, but it’s not one you want to hear from your dermatologist. It’s like picking the shortest straw in the scary game of skin cancer. The two other types—basal cell and squamous cell—are not exactly desirable, but a better deal than the “m” word. All three are treatable if caught in the early stages.
The first swipe of the biopsy had come back with clear margins—the area around the mole was clear of any cancerous cells. But it’s standard practice with melanoma to go in and do an “excision” (surgery speak for carving a chunk) around the area. My doctor made a little sketch of what she expected the surgeon to take out during the procedure. A diamond shape, with several layers beneath. She described it as a football, but to me it looked like a piece of baklava.
The surgery went well, especially since the doctor had kids the same age as mine. He and his nurse put my mind at ease by talking about summer camps and Harry Potter, and I almost forgot why I was there. Almost. The incision was a few inches long, and deep enough to require two layers of stitches. After a few days of diligent wound care—I may be the only person on the planet who has ever gloved up to touch her own leg—I got the good news that the chunk of baklava was clear, too.
The constant feeling of something tight wrapped around my heart subsided. My husband and I let ourselves imagine that we’d get to raise our daughters together. I felt lucky and, at the same time, humbled to know that not everyone with skin cancer gets such a good diagnosis. I did have some bad news to contend with, other than me not ever being a bathing suit model. I have a higher chance of this happening in the future than someone who hasn’t had melanoma, I’ll have to see my doctor every three months, and our kids are now at an increased risk for skin cancer.
Despite my brush with mortality—which made me feel like maybe the forties were not really the new thirties after all, but the new eighties—I’ve handled the transition into this new decade pretty gracefully. I’ve dealt with the fact that I am older than my daughter’s doll, a historical character from the seventies, not to mention the current James Bond. Halle Berry and Brooke Shields are about my age, so how bad can it be?
We all know that one’s forties are a time to reflect, to figure out what’s working and what changes to make during Act II. Take stock, eat better, drink more water, exfoliate. While we’re at it, try to make the world a better place, too—no easy task in the shadows of terrorist attacks, tainted food, and the ongoing threat of natural disasters. Mixed messages abound: have a disaster plan, meditate more, change all your light bulbs and downsize your house, your car, your carbon footprint. De-stress, do yoga, follow your bliss. Priorities pop out of nowhere like sproings of gray hair or, in my case, like renegade moles. Before the baklava incident, I had namaste’d myself into a frenzy in the name of being a responsible adult. And just when I thought I had it all figured out, this little pink dome of skin poked through my leg and threw me off balance.
I grew up basking in the warmth of the Nevada sun, less than an hour from the shores of Lake Tahoe. I used to detach the mirror from my makeup kit, take it outside, and hold it at just the right angle under my chin until my face glowed a cinnamon brown. I have a distinct memory of being sixteen, lying outside in my bikini, and thinking: “The sun is on my face. I have a Tab. I am young and healthy and it might not always be this good.”
Back then, I had no concept of what life would be like as an “older woman.” I didn’t understand that although everything—including my complexion—was smooth on the surface, changes were happening to my psyche and at the cellular level that wouldn’t show up for years. I didn’t have a lot of role models to show me how it was done. My mom is one of those moms who everyone always mistakes for my sister, with a beauty regimen that consists of whatever lotion is lying around and her trusty tube of Natural Frost lipstick. She smoked her way through her pregnancy, as did most women in the sixties, yet I can count on one hand the number of times she ever went to the doctor. She’s still the healthiest person in my family. My grandmothers lived far away, my aunts are each only about ten years older than me, and I am an only child.
So when I was a teenager, older women were foreign creatures who came in and out of focus in my periphery. They were either friends’ aunts or grandmothers, vague authority figures in Christmas sweaters, or strangers slumped over slot machines.
Now I live in Charlotte, and although the hot sun blazes from March to December, it’s different from out West. There’s a little more haze to hide behind here, like a kind movie director is putting gauze in front of the camera instead of lighting you from above. While most women my age and older slather themselves in sunscreen and seek the benevolent shade of our city’s tree canopy, others wouldn’t dream of leaving home without their tan. It seems that most younger women still spend hours in the sun like I did. This summer, when I see them lying on blankets in the middle of Freedom Park, I’ll want to show them my scar and shout, “It’s not worth it!” But to them, I’ll be just a blur of bad jeans who probably drives a minivan. (I do.)
Whatever mistakes I made or advice I might have couldn’t possibly interest them. And yet I don’t envy their youth like I thought I would. It would be nice to have unmarked skin that bounces back into place when touched, but I’d also feel like a bit of a blank slate.
My daughters, snuggling before bed, like to ask me about the stories behind my scars: “I got this one at work trying to flag down the FedEx guy. This one’s from the chicken pox in my twenties. Remember this one? Playing sharks and minnows with you at the pool.” Once, after touring my scar Hall of Fame, my eldest touched my arm and said, “Mom, it’s OK, those are signs of a good life.” Soon I’ll have to show them the scar on my leg and say, “This one’s because Mommy spent too much time in the sun.”
This idea of scars being signs of a good life hit home just a few days after my surgery, when I went to a friend’s surprise sixtieth birthday party at the aptly named Carpe Diem. A few of her friends had driven up from Atlanta for the occasion. When they entered the restaurant, I was struck by how beautiful these women were—their skin glowing from having just rushed in and their eyes filled with the kind of confidence that comes with knowing exactly who you are and what you want. Their hemlines were slightly above the knee; one wore killer black boots and another a stylish tunic dress. The women there that night ranged from thirty-nine to sixty, but we soaked up each other’s stories. We talked about raising kids, politics, the environment, George Clooney, Sting. These were women who, like my mother, probably smoked when it was fashionable. They, too, baked themselves in the sun for hours, no doubt slick with baby oil or single-digit SPF. They came of age during Vietnam and the ERA and watched leader after leader of their generation vanish. Talk about scars. “So you had cancer,” they said. “Thank God you caught it early. Let me tell you what happened to me …”
I pick up the tomato again and turn it until I’m face to face with its puckered skin and black-brown splotches. Its weight feels good in my hand, and I find a soft spot for it in my cart. Before I let go, I see that the raised veins I like to trace on my own mother’s hands, and on her mother’s before her, now run below the surface of mine. The inevitability of aging is maddening and yet somehow comforting, like a song I’ve heard too many times but can sing all the words to.
Back at home, sitting outside with my family, my husband smiles at me. I wonder if he’s thinking more about what we’ve been through or what lies ahead. I pick up the bottle of sunscreen and give it a good squeeze. The cold, white lotion fills my palm, and I use my other hand to warm it. Our daughters stand in front of me, each with one arm stretched out and the other one at their foreheads, pushing back their bangs. They can’t see the future in front of them any more than I can. But I’ll go ahead and work the milky liquid into their smooth skin anyway, silently charting every one of their freckles like stars in a constellation.
Lisa Rubenson is a freelance writer who lives (near her dermatologist’s office) in Charlotte with her husband and two daughters.