A lot has happened since I last updated this blog, so please bear with me if this post seems a bit all over the map. It's a common problem in my world, though I can honestly say that I wouldn't have it any other way.
The most exciting news is that a dear friend from my hospital's transplant program (and a fellow CFer) got his brand new lungs just about 48 hours after I wrote the last post about our little "CF/transplant group." For all the dry runs and the drama and the frustration of my time on the list, I truly can't imagine what this guy went through in waiting for over 2 years for lungs, all while attempting to keep up with the first one and then two handsome sons he shares with his gorgeous and incredibly loving wife. They are truly inspiring people and wonderful parents, and I am so excited for them to move forward together as a perfect, happy, and HEALTHY family. To the donor and the family who made this all possible, wherever you are today, thank you from the bottom of our hearts from all of us who know and adore these special people!
As for me, I get to take care of several routine and not-so-routine health matters before the month is out, including transplant clinic, some less-than-awesome digestive "fun", the endocrinologist to follow up on my pathetic Vit. D levels, a bravo test for my reflux, and the dermatologist. For sanity's sake, we'll keep the discussion of most of those to a minimum and just focus on the circus du jour, otherwise known as a complete dermatology check up.
For those of you who have never had the pleasure of this experience, you're missing out. The process basically involves stripping down and getting a complete body once over by someone trained to know the difference between a freckle and a serious problem. In my case, since I'm covered in freckles pretty much from head to toe, this typically feels like a some sort of military hazing activity. Luckily the visit today was less painful (literally) thanks to the presence of hand held mirrors. Points to the doc for thinking up that one.
What was fun, though, was the final "consultation" part of the program, during which I was informed by the staff that people on immunosuppressive drugs are 65 to 250% more likely to develop skin cancer than your average John or Jane Doe. Where exactly I fall within that large range was never actually explained, but since I have pretty fair Irish skin I'm guessing it's in the upper numbers. Skin cancer, I was told, is dangerous and possibly deadly. The take home message was definitely that the sun is a monster of which I should be afraid, be very, very afraid.
Now, I am cautious about the sun by pretty much any standard. I've known about the increased skin cancer rates since before I had my transplant, and I've also known that certain of my other drugs (like antibiotics, for example), make me more sensitive than most people to the sun and more susceptible to sunburn. Also, as someone suffering from chronic and incurable whiteness, I learned at a very young age that I go straight from pale to burned. There is no tan in my world, there is just increased freckling that sometimes blends together in some form of brownness -- and that only seconds before I turn roughly the shade of a lobster in a boiling pot. I was about 5 years old when I discovered SPF 45, and I can honestly say that I've never looked back.
But that, according to the helpful folks at the dermatology department, isn't quite good enough. In fact, their list of suggested precautions went something like this:
-NEVER EVER EVER leave the house (regardless of weather) without wearing SPF 30 or higher on all exposed skin patches. EVER.
-In fact, since sun and UV rays can come through windows, always wear sunscreen indoors as well.
-Not that it matters anyway, though, because no part of your skin should ever be exposed to the sun. Wear hats with sun protection and SPF clothing at all times.
-SPF 15 is useless. We laugh in the face of SPF 15. It is basically grease. It probably attracts the sun. The makers of SPF 15 are probably paid by the cancer lobby.
-The safest place to live is in a dark hole underground. Second place goes to houses and apartments with no windows, provided you never leave. Anything less than that and you're screwed.
Basically the advice could be summed up as: go outside as little as possible and when you do wear long sleeves with sun protection built in and SPF 30-45 on any exposed parts. And stay away from windows."
Here's the thing though: I'm not afraid. I know the sun can hurt me and I know I'm not invincible (nothing like CF and a lung transplant to teach you that lesson!) and I know I need to be careful. I know all that. But I also know that a lifetime of defying expectations and refusing to listen to life expectancies or warnings not to ride my horse or play too hard or travel too much or whatever have NEVER ONCE persuaded me that the right way to live is to value caution over life. Not then, not now, and hopefully not ever.
So here's my compromise:
-I do wear sunscreen, and I do wear SPF 30 or higher.
-I do NOT wear clothes with SPF, not because I'm stupid, but because fashion is actually important to me. My sister designs gorgeous clothes and I want to wear them.
-I do NOT always cover up every part of me. I do, however, take basic precautions like wearing sun hats.
-I do try to avoid being outside in the sun for extended periods of time, if I can do so without missing out on an activity that is important to me.
-I do not currently wear sunscreen in the winter, but I will going forward. That seems reasonable. Also, I will remember to wear it even if I'm not planning on being outside, particularly in summer.
Okay, so it's not perfect, but I think it strikes a nice balance between being careful and allowing me to be myself, which includes the part of me who grew up in the mountains and loves the outdoors. And who knows? It might even help a little with my low vitamin D levels, which are of course related to sun intake.
The reason I chose to write about this though is not to get approval of my personal compromise plan. In fact, quite the opposite -- I'm quite positive that by posting this I'm leaving myself vulnerable to actual criticism from some of my doctors and the medical staff at my hospital, at least a few of whom know about this blog and occasionally read it. Trust me when I say I'm not expecting any kudos here, nor do I expect everyone will agree with me. Instead, I chose to write this because I think it's important that we, as patients, know and understand our own power to take well-meaning medical advice, think about it logically, and make our own decisions about how to integrate it (or not) into our own lives. I would actually go so far as to say that I think this is the number one job we have as patients: not to follow instructions blindly, but to have an active sense of our own health needs and emotional priorities and to spend at least some time deciding for ourselves how best to balance the two. Anything less is, to borrow from earlier in this post, missing out.
Look, I know my lungs are a gift, and the last thing I want to do is jeopardize that gift by being stupid in the sun. I have friends who didn't make it to transplant, and others who died after their bodies rejected their lungs. To do anything less than the best I could by this new set is in some ways a slap in the face to all those who die each year without the chance at new life, or to my donor who gave me my life back. I know this, and believe me: it is not a responsibility that I take lightly.
At the same time, though, I know my lungs are my chance to live my life in ways I haven't been able to for a long time. For me this means outdoor activities. It means not allowing my health to dictate everything from my clothing choices to the amount of time I spend at the window. It means never taking a single breath for granted and knowing that sometimes I will have to suck it up and do things I don't want to do for the sake of my body, but not that I need to stop living. To put it another way, wearing SPF clothing might not seem like much of a compromise to make. Nor, for that matter, is giving up eating raw food or alcohol or going outside without a mask or riding the subway or swimming in indoor pools or taking all the drugs or not allowing my dog to sleep with me or not taking Communion at church or not shaking hands or avoiding crowds or taking the blood thinner shots that give me nasty bruises or never touching a public computer or not eating from a communal chip bowl at parties or never sharing food or...well, you get the idea. Every single one of these things, taken individually, is actually a reasonable suggestion. Put them all together, though, and it's easy to see how these rules can start to take over your life. And since a lot of them CAN'T be compromised AT ALL (taking all the drugs, for example) then it stands to reason that where one might negotiate leeway is in some of the others (I shake hands with strangers all the time, and then I use hand sanitizer). I personally don't think this is a stupid risk on my part, but I guess that's open to interpretation.
So now I want to hear from a couple of you, if possible. Email me or comment below or whatever, but share a little about how you deal with the "life"/health dichotomy. When, if ever, do you make compromises? Why or why not? And, hugely, what do you do to ensure that you don't "miss out" on any of the things that are important priorities for YOU?
Love, light, and best wishes for a happy and healthy 2012, beautiful people.
- I am a 31-year-old sister, daughter, friend, law school graduate, CFer, student of public service, blog writer, patient, Sagittarius, reader, Top chef fan, double-lung transplant recipient, lover AND fighter, and dog owner living in NYC's beautiful West Village. I love all things colorful, funny, inspiring, or needlessly sarcastic. I share my city with 10,000,000 other remarkable people, share my disease with 70,000 other beautiful souls, and share my apartment with one really fat mutt with a kick-butt personality. We make it work.
About This Blog:
This blog is about me, my life, my sometimes craziness, my disease, and my current journey as a double-lung transplant recipient. It's also a celebration of everyone out there with CF (and other chronic illnesses) and all the mountains that they seem to move daily. It's for you, inspired by you, and dedicated to you -- the community that keeps me writing, living, and breathing.
Want to Contact Me?
Please email me suggestions, thoughts, comments, or criticism. Seriously, I love hearing from you guys!
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