I live on an island in the south of the South Pacific, where the winds blow fiercely. On a fine day, our country sparkles with clarity. The quality of light here is unsurpassed. Photographers love it. I am frequently disappointed when I travel to other countries, expecting to see grand vistas but only finding haze.
There’s a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. Ozone is a protective canopy over the earth, keeping out the harmful UV-B rays from the sun. So close to Antarctica, New Zealand has had a hole in over it for a long time. In summer, when the sun is high, we (and other southern hemisphere friends at similar latitudes) are particularly vulnerable. The combination of the clear air and the ozone hole mean that you can get sunburned in record time here.
Of course, sunburn is dangerous. When I grew up in the 70s, we didn’t really know that. People thought a suntan was healthy. I remember my mother sending me out to sit in the sun to try and get a tan gradually. She thought it was protection against sunburn. She was naturally olive-toned, and tanned easily. I had my father’s skin, classic Irish colouring, pale skin, green eyes and dark hair. When we were little, and on our summer holidays, my father would put on shorts for the only time in the year. My sister and I would run competitions to see if we could see a man with legs whiter than Dad. One year we did – I can still see that man. He was very fair, with ginger hair and freckles. Unfair competition really.
Dad spent his life in the sun as a farmer. His face was a ruddy tan, his hands a deep brown. But the colour ended at his neck and wrists. After he retired, as old folks do, he started getting spots on his hands. He visited his GP, who would generally examine them and burn them off with liquid nitrogen. He started doing the same on his face. The spots were skin cancer, but as they weren’t melanoma, the scariest of the skin cancers, he was relaxed about treating them. But there was a persistent cancer on his jaw, and eventually, after many attempts to remove it, he saw a specialist. Invasive surgery followed as the cancer was found to be more than skin deep, and radiation treatment was required. He recovered well, but a year later was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. He had none of the risk factors for it, and the doctors seemed to think that it was likely a secondary cancer from the nearby skin cancer. I can’t afford to think otherwise. Oesophogeal cancer has a poor prognosis, and is a nasty way to die. Dad died only 2 ½ months after diagnosis. I was at his side.
I love summer. I love the feeling of the sun on my back, being warm through to my bones, the freedom and joy of a warm sunny day. But I fear it too now.
I am an expert in wearing suntan lotion, and always wear makeup with a sun protection factor. I get regular mole checks from my doctor. I wear hats too, despite the difficulty in finding one that looks good on me. In New Zealand now school children have big floppy hats as part of their school uniforms, and have to wear them when they’re outside playing at lunchtime. They wear swimwear with long sleeves to protect their beautiful pale perfect skin from sunburn.
For years, there have been advertisements on TV reminding us to Slip Slop Slap (Slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, and slap on a hat) when out in the sun. I believe there’s a similar campaign in Australia. The newspapers, radio and TV report the daily burn time during the summer. There are articles and documentaries about the dangers of sunburn and its relationship with skin cancer. But it surprises me how many people still live in ignorance, or worse, denial, of the dangers. I met someone a couple of years ago who still uses baby oil to try and give herself a tan. Frying herself. Some friends ask, when I’ve returned from beach holidays, if I got a tan. Others look at me as if I’m mad when I say I won’t sit outside for lunch unless I’m in the shade. Quite aside from the aesthetics (my skin is nice and smooth but sun worshippers start turning leathery and aging in their 30s), don’t they know the risks? They should.
Maybe I need to move someone where there is no ozone hole. There are reports that it might be healing as CFC use drops. I hope so. I need it. We need it.