How We Got the Skin We're in

Well, here we are in summer. You could have fooled me but I'm trying to go with what the calendar says. Coastal residents are often wary of calendars, weatherpersons, almanacs and other predictors of weather. Most of the time we live in a misty, gray world for at least part of the day.

When we do have sunshine some of us go crazy. Sunscreen? Nope, that's for people in the Bahamas. We like to use olive oil... that way you can start dinner early. Most of us use nothing. Nothing is cheap and it seems kind of silly to buy sun protection if you live here. Oh and there's always shade. Are you kidding me? We just got found sun. Let's just sit in it until we fry. After that, we can sit in the house and listen to our skin crackle.

One of the real problems of life on the beautiful Oregon Coastline is that those of us who have spent most of our lives here are more likely to suffer from skin cancer. It's science... even though this just doesn't seem right. You would think that people who live in sunny climes would be the ones to get this disease more frequently. Nope. It's us.

Why? First of all, most of us don't stand a genetic chance of being sun-tolerant. We are the really white people who came from England or Northern Europe or The British Isles. We are kin to people who tolerated sun in reasonably cool climates while wearing six layers of clothing. We've got a similar climate but dropped the clothing part.

Reasonable tanning happens over time to skin that is exposed. It doesn't matter what color of skin you start with. The problem with Coastal sun is that it is too intense and we don't get the signals our body would send us if the air were warmer. Warm summer sun and cool breezes are a toxic combination for skin. Overcast days are included here. This combination, along with an extreme level of yearning for tanned skin, accounts for our high population of folks with skin cancer and other related skin diseases.

Geezer Tribe members who ruined their skin with sun exposure when they were kids take a more careful approach. We limit our time in the sun because we've gotten smarter. We don't tolerate heat very well either so it's a win-win for us. We're the ones under the shelter at family reunions.

I don't know about your skin but mine looks like it came off an aging elephant. Skin is supposed to have several layers. I think I burned all mine off. It's tissue-paper thin and covered with age spots, scars and bruises. At nearly 70 years of age, I'm ahead of schedule on this skin deterioration thing, but I earned every bit of it. I see this skin every day so I think it's normal. Anything else would be too hard to pronounce.

On a beach in Mexico several years ago, I met one of the most fascinating members of the Geezer Tribe I've ever known. She probably weighed 100 pounds then, which would have included her eclectic jewelry and bikini. She was in her mid-seventies and her humor was contagious. Her skin was completely brown and every inch of it was crinkled (multi-directional wrinkles). It hung in assorted pouches where muscle or fat had once been.

“I've got a job as a model and I only work one day a year!” she laughed. So her days were spent laying in the sun and walking on the beach visiting with old friends and making new ones. She told us she had come there to die several years earlier. When that didn't happen, she stayed. Her son was a Dermatologist in Boston and flew her home once a year (first class) to see her family and take part in classes he taught at a university on “what not to do.” She was his model in classes and took part in other studies, with the humor and grace she showed to all of us during her morning visits.

She would die of melanoma because she loved the sun more than a life without it. She had given back to other sun worshipers through her willingness to share the story of her own disease. Her life was complete.

This lady stays with me because her story is about the choices we make. Please apply sunscreen liberally... or not. We have melanoma, squamous and basal cell cancers at Shaffer house. Experience counts.

Yes, I know I'm not your mother... but do it for the Tribe. Thank you.