by Kim Pillow
I love the sun. I mean I used to love the sun. As a teenage girl in the late 80’s and early 90’s, my summers were coated in Panama Jack Trophy Oil, SPF zero. As tanning salons became more common during my undergraduate years, it was cool to go year-round with a tanning bed glow. This machine gave me the “base tan”, which I then could intensify through hours of sunbathing. I am totally guilty of ignoring the warning labels that were plastered all over the tanning beds and ignoring the forms stating the risks associated with UVA/UVB rays that I signed so quickly. I ignored all the facts and all the cautious words I would hear on the news about how tanning leads to cancer. I could articulate that these caused cancer and premature aging if I was quizzed on it, but I somehow thought that it did not apply to me. I was young and naïve; I was ignorant. I can even remember saying to a friend, “Who cares what I look like at 50…. I want to look good now!” Tanning made me careless, it was my idol. I loved the feeling of the sun on my skin. Yes, I am the weirdo that doesn’t immediately cut on the air conditioning when I crank my car in the summer. I love that feeling…. it reminds me of the beach.
I lived this way from age 16-28. To my credit, I never went to the tanning bed during either of my pregnancies, and I also went once a year to the dermatologist since I was fair skinned and a sunbather. It was February of 2000, two weeks before I had given birth to my second child, Baylor, I noticed what looked to be a tiny “tick” on the back of my right thigh. As I looked closer, I realized this spot had not been there and immediately called my dermatologist to be worked in the next day. I was panicked because it had an odd blue halo around it. I knew it looked different. The next day, my dermatologist told me it was a blood clot and sent me home. 6 more weeks went by but the spot didn’t go away. It didn’t grow or bleed, it just stayed the same. I quickly made an appointment with my family doctor, Dr. Nause. He felt it was some type of growth that did need to be removed. He referred me to the local surgeon Dr. John Fair Lucas for it to be removed. This spot was smaller than a pencil eraser and was a perfect circle. It looked like a blood blister. I felt vain for worrying so about something that looked so insignificant. I had it removed without incident and again went on my way. 10 days later, I got a personal phone call from Dr. Lucas telling me that my spot had unfortunately came back as malignant melanoma. I knew enough to immediately know that my days in the sun were over, but I had no idea that melanoma could spread to other organs and kill you. Dr. Lucas was very frank about my situation; he said that when melanoma is caught early, you have a 90 % chance of survival. He said that if it is in your lymph node you have a 50% chance and if it’s in your organ, “you’re gone.” I left this conversation devastated. Yes, the spot looked odd, but harmless at the same time. Every picture I had ever seen of a melanoma was hideous and very ugly. I can remember thinking that if I ever had a spot like that on me, I would know it! I will always hold Dr. Nause in a special place for being so conscientious and taking my concerns seriously. While my melanoma was unusually small, it had gone deep early. I learned terms that I had never heard of before …superficial spreading, Clark level, breslow thickness, sentinel lymph node mapping. I can remember one pathologist saying to me, “You are one of the luckiest people …. that was the smallest melanoma I have ever seen.”
Nevertheless, I was convinced I was going to die of this. After a wide excision of my back right thigh and a sentinel lymph node biopsy, one of the happiest days of my life came when I got the news from Dr. Fleming that my lymph node was negative for metastasis. This was huge! I felt like I had been given a chance to live. Even though I was clear and going in for all of my follow-ups, every time I had a headache, I thought I had a tumor. I learned of several deaths of local people as well as a sorority sister that were from melanoma. One death that hit me close to home was the father of my good friend, Allison Meek. Terry Wilkey was diagnosed in November and died eight weeks later.
I prayed for God to allow me to see my children grow up. Baylor was now 3 months old and Mary Dudley was 3 years old. I also was working full time in commission-based sales and the pressure was mounting. I was overwhelmed with life. As I learned more about what I was going though medically, inside I dealt with shame and embarrassment. I felt all the consequences of my stupidity come down on me like a huge weight. Was my obsession with the sun and tanning worth all this physical pain and suffering? It wasn’t worth losing my life over! I can tell you I became a different person after this experience. We decided not to have any more children because there were some links at that time between melanoma and reproductive hormones. I have not been in the sun since. I totally died to myself. After about ten years of sunless living, I no longer had tan lines— not even one. I became the advocate for self-tanning. I use it year round and have enjoyed the new types and qualities I have seen in the various lotions, sprays, and mousses out there. Yes, I sometimes have orange feet and hands at times but I proudly am orange and alive!
Every spring, I deal with a little jealously of those who are free to be outside with no fear of anything and have beautiful bronze skin. For years, I would get a little sad and have a “pity party” that I couldn’t be in the sun anymore, but then I would look at my scar and remember all I went through. I knew I had a second chance that I couldn’t waste feeling sorry for myself. Satan wants to take you down a negative vortex of unhealthy thoughts and emotions. Some skeptics think Christianity is a crutch. I believe it is the bedrock of my life. God is holy and good. He is everything.
I have been to the beach a couple of times in the past twenty years but I no longer lay there all day soaking it up. I am under the umbrella— a place twenty years ago that I wouldn’t have been caught dead. I didn’t want this experience to be wasted or to be hard headed about the truth of the damaging effects of the sun. The Lord got my attention. I had to deal with my mortality at age 28. I knew each day is a gift and I was thankful that I was here to raise my children. I will always remember our pastor, Randy Thompson, coming over and praying with us. He shared the scripture Isaiah 29:11 “ for I know the plans I have for you, plans to give you hope and a future.” I also vividly recall telling a friend from church that I was concerned that if I died who would mother my children? She quickly answered me with what I thought at the time was the Sunday school answer, “if something happens to you, the Lord will take care of your children.” I can still see me immaturely scratching off in my car so mad at her words. In this, my lack of faith was exposed. I wanted control of my life and my children’s lives. As time went on, I came to realize this truth that she had spoken to me in love. I believe that if I had died leaving Stephen and two small children then yes, the Lord could be trusted to take care of them. I had to surrender my will and trust that He can be trusted. I also remember everyone celebrating with us that we had caught it early and folks said with glee, “The Lord is good!” While I wholeheartedly agree with this statement, I felt like it really came down to one big question for me. This question was that, if the doctor had told me that the melanoma was in my brain and I had weeks to live, could I then say that yes, the Lord is good? It was so personal; something only I could answer. I want to be able to answer yes He is good no matter my circumstances. It was a pivotal moment of grace and kindness trusting in His sovereign will. One of my favorite speakers is Joni Eareckson Tada. She said, “God permits what He hates to accomplish what he loves.” The Lord took away my dependence on my tan for a dependence on Him. He is where I find my beauty and self worth. I am a beloved daughter of the King!
I am also thankful for Stephen’s unconditional love. It is in the hard times that your marriage grows and you truly see each other in your worst and at your best. We both share an eternal perspective and want to glorify God with our lives.
I knew my chance of anther melanoma was likely down the road. I have been persistent in keeping my dermatology appointments every six months. I have had numerous moles removed and all has been fine until three years ago, I had a second melanoma on the calf of the same leg. I was so sad and felt like I was walking back down a memory lane that I didn’t want to go down. A scab was being pulled off an old wound in my heart. I was able to go back to Dr. Fleming. This melanoma was not as deep and thankfully did not warrant a sentinel lymph node biopsy. I had another wide excision of the site. One of the most humbling places you can be is on a hospital stretcher without your personal effects and with the hospital cap and gown on. This time I was sad but not distraught. It is a humbling position. I was discouraged but I had hope. I knew that God is in control. I took time to pause and reflect where I had been but where I was going. Life is such a rat race that I often get caught up in the busyness of life and forget what’s important. I felt like this second melanoma was a tap on the shoulder to remind me how short life can be and re-focus my life towards the things that matter. It is a daily surrendering.
I have to admit I hate the word melanoma. I honestly have tried to distance myself from the whole ordeal. I have not wanted to be the poster child of “Don’t let this happen to you!” but recently I was in a conversation of some friends who I thought knew my story. They were talking about possibly going to the tanning bed before a local event. I felt I couldn’t just sit there with a laisser-faire attitude. I spoke up, saying I couldn’t condone tanning beds because I have had two melanomas. They all said they didn’t know. I was shocked and embarrassed that I just assumed everyone knew! Maybe I have been too silent, too selfish. Nevertheless, I was convicted that I should be more vocal about my experience. Unfortunately, I am not alone, as this recent link (see below) from the Today Show last week states that melanoma has increased 800%in young women between 1970 and 2009. So, when I was asked to write this blog for Westminster, I knew it would be about melanoma. God has blessed me with the last 20 summers in the shade. He didn’t save me just from this. He saved me from myself.
I want to share the words of one of my favorite songs during that time that brought great comfort to me. It’s an RUF tune from Isaiah 43.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you
And the waves will not overcome you
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine. For I and the Lord your God. The Holy one of Isreal, your savior.
When you walk through the fire You’ll not be burned,
And the flames will not consume you. Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name you are mine