I do not like the heat. When my younger sisters would invite me to go to the sunny beach on the coast of New Hampshire, I would decline, finding any excuse available to avoid the sun, the heat, the crowds and the traffic in the parking lots. They thought of the beach as Heaven, and I envisioned it as Hell.
Yet I’d grown up as a child staying on the beach of the City of Boston nearly every summer day. I did learn to swim (after one of my younger sisters showed me up by learning first.) And I did learn to seek clams (walking at low tide on the smooth damp sand of water’s edge, stamping and watching for a squirt from below.) We also built sculptures in the clay/sand beside the bath house, where the water from the showers drained out and ran to the ocean. We found small jelly fish (not the poisonous kind) beached on the low tide sand, and if they were still wet we’d help them back into the water. For hours each summer day we would be there, most often until the street lights went on and called us home.
But by my late teens and early twenties, the heat of the beach was bothersome and seemed to cause dizziness, weakness, and a general malaise. The brightness of sun on water and sand would cause headaches, and sunglasses were simply made of dark plastic, not yet manufactured to filter out harmful UV rays. My friends would use baby oil and iodine mixture to attract the sun and work on their tan; I would seek any shade available and wear T-shirts over my bathing suit to avoid more burning, peeling, and freckling. I don’t think I was very good company for anyone at the beach. Yet I would stay, because everyone was there, and no one was back home in the neighborhood.
If we measured heat intolerance and excessive perspiration as evidence of multiple sclerosis, then I was born with it. The diagnosis didn’t come until my late fifties, because I never sought an answer for what was ‘normal’ for me all of my life. But once diagnosed, I was encouraged to ‘treat’ the condition by injecting, nightly, a solution that would weaken my immune system, because the immune system was said to be attacking my nervous system. I accepted that for four long years, during which time I grew weaker, more forgetful, more anxious and more depressed. And then I stopped that medication.
But the harm was done. For during all of those childhood days on the beach something had quietly begun, unseen: the process of growing skin cancer cells. Within two days after seeing a dermatologist, I was diagnosed, in my sixties, with all three different types of skin cancer. Had my very strong immune system, the same one that protected me from contagious germs in classrooms for thirty years, suddenly yielded to cancer cells? Was that the fault of the anti-immune system medication? Would it have happened anyway? Was my heat intolerance trying to warn me away from the sun? Did I not listen soon enough? I was just a child.
Today, the third day of this late-Spring heat wave, I am shielded by sun block, and cooled by air conditioners, downstairs and up. I am free to rest when I am tired, and not required to meet anyone else’s demands on my time. I will ‘lay low’ ’til this heat wave passes, and it will pass. My eyes are protected by better sunglasses, and I feel no need to be at the beach. I do love the ocean, but more often will visit it in cool weather, and in the evenings when the sun is down.
I will survive, says the singer of the song. I am still here, and so is the sun. But we don’t need to spend full days together. There are enough sun worshippers among us. I will continue to honor the moon and the stars, suns, but farther away. And I will treat the malignancies with surgeries rather than with more medications that might, in their own time, harm something else in my systems. Patients, beware.