Coping With Skin Cancer: My Life With Horses Under the Sun

Coping With Skin Cancer: My Life With Horses Under the Sun

I was born the quintessential summer baby. No - truly, I really was. Many moons ago I came into this world like a beaming ray of sunshine, on a bright and sunny June morning – the 21st to be exact - also known asthe summer solstice. I was raised on the coast of California, living out my childhood days on our family ranch located five miles from the Pacific Ocean. I spent more days at the beach, the lake, out in the country and on the ranch than I can recall. In fact, I’m still here, living out my days on that same ranch, at those same beaches and on those same lakes.

As a little girl, I looked every part the California summer child. My skin was naturally olive-toned (attributed to my mother’s Swedish heritage and my father’s Mexican heritage), my face and arms peppered with sun-kissed freckles, my light brunette hair was layered with golden natural highlights that I’ve spent a solid 15 years attempting to chemically recreate.

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My summers were filled with fun in the sun – I rarely covered up, riding my pony in shorts and swimsuits, barefoot and such. But let me interject here; while I, the child, rarely covered up, my parents still did their parental obligation in covering my tan little body in Coppertone, Banana Boat and Zinc galore. Oh, and the zinc. It was the late 80’s / early 90’s... Do you remember the colored zinc sticks in blue, pink and yellow? Those were my jam.

The teenage years brought less sun protection and more sun exposure. I recall several summers that I spent exercising multiple horses a day in jeans and bandeau tops. Just call me a multitasking savant – hack and tan, hack and tan, hack and tan. And boy, oh boy, was I tan. Like most late 90’s/early 2000’s teenage girls, I had a tanning salon membership. We took our tanning very seriously back in those days. Several nights a week, the hoards of us sun-worshiping California teenage girls would meet at the local tanning parlor, taking our turns in the booth, comparing tan lines and talking shop with total social club atmospheric bliss. What a time, what an era, and looking back, what a mistake. At least for me.

As I entered my 20’s, my time in the sun decreased in comparison to those teenage days. I was still outdoors every day, riding horses, hiking, running, laying out, enjoying the California sunshine. But I was also finishing up grad school, working full time, settling into married life, buying a house, and preparing to start a family. I began wearing more hats, wearing more sunscreen and throwing less caution to the wind.

On my 30th birthday, I celebrated with a pool party, a margarita and a mean sunburn. The kind of sunburn that your ass just won’t allow you to sit down on. Typically I would have slapped some aloe on it, said that will tan up nicely, and not given two fks. But I had scheduled my very first dermatologist appointment (yes, I didn’t see a dermatologist until I was 30) for that same week and knew what a horrible impression I was about to bestow upon myself with this new medical skin guru. But aside from some mild shame, I didn’t really think much about it.

I’ll make the next part of the story short and sweet. I went to said appointment, the doctor took a look at my inner right leg (adjacent to my right knee), didn’t like what she saw, removed a funky looking mole thing, prepped it to be sent off for biopsy, gave me five stitches, said ‘it’s better to be safe than sorry,’ and sent me on my way.

Three days later I got that call. Three days later I learned that it was melanoma.

Like, WTF? How, why, seriously, melanoma? Honestly, I didn’t see that coming, not by a million miles. And days after celebrating my milestone 30th birthday, no less. It was as if life was bitch slappin’ me across the face and saying ‘welcome to your 30’s.’ Or no, better yet, ‘welcome to life.’

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So a brief and educational tidbit is probably required at this stage of the story. Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, hands down. A cancerous growth develops when damage to the skin cells, often caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation (cough, cough, sunshine and tanning beds), triggers these genetic defect type mutations that lead the cells to form tumors. Yay. They often resemble moles and can come in a lovely array of colors – black, brown, nude, pink, red, purple, blue and white. Melanoma come in various shapes and a multitude of sizes, and speaking from experience... when in doubt, scope it out. Ask your doctor. Go to the dermatologist. In 2018 alone, nearly 100,000 cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in the U.S. It is not the most common type of skin cancer, but it becomes serious and deadly because it often spreads. And here comes the grave statistic, after which point I will stop throwing numbers at you: almost 10,000 people die each year thanks to melanoma.

So yeah, buck you melanoma.

Anyways, back to that lovely phone call I received from my doctor. After she broke the news, she explained that I needed to come back within the next two days to have more tissue removed around the location. So in I went, and off went more of my inner leg, leaving me with 20 stitches and an indention resembling an itty bitty shark bite. Because of the location of the melanoma (the inner knee), and the large amount of deep tissue removed, I could not extend my leg. So I hobbled out of there, had my woe-is-me moment in the car, then twice again at home that night. Please, don’t get me wrong. I’ve given birth to two children, one of which was 9lbs (and don’t ask, I’m still trying to figure out how that was humanly possible for this 100lb, 5’3” frame of mine), so it’s safe to say this chick can handle some pain. Two things sent me into an emotional tizzy; the first being that I was about to embark on a three-month riding hiatus. Thank you massive piece of flesh now missing from my very important inner leg. The second emotional breakdown resulted from the conversation I had with my doctor about that quintessential California girl lifestyle of mine, and making some serious changes. In a nutshell, I received a stern talking to about not allowing myself any sun exposure from here until the day I bite the dust. I explained that certain activities, cough cough, horseback riding, I simply wasn’t willing to give up. Because what is a life worth living if your not on horseback? Such a cliché horse-obsessed thing to say, I can almost feel my husbands’ eye roll as I type it. But really. So instead, I considered becoming a vampire, pondered life as Casper the Friendly Ghost, and contemplated burrowing underground. I was about sent over the edge when she handed me a pamphlet for Dermatologist-recommended UV-protection clothing. I looked into her eyes, emotionally drained and slightly offended over the less-than-flattering styling suggestion, and said: “these are beekeeping costumes.”

I knew there was something better. And you know what? You can bet your sunburned ass there was. Prior to getting slapped with a bright red bumper sticker that should read “I tanned myself into melanoma-oblivion,” I had dabbled in the sun safe, UV-blocking equestrian fashion world. And now, as one of the lucky 100,000 people diagnosed with melanoma that year, I was ready to embrace this sun-consciousness line of equestrian goodies and tactics with wide open sun-screened arms.

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Want to know what’s awesome about this horsey-world we live in? Sun protection is taken pretty seriously. Wide-brimmed helmets? Check. UV-blocking arm sleeves? Done. Massive Sun Visors? You bet. And a slew of UPF sun protection shirts, cooling riding tights, gloves, sunglasses and more. The equestrian world has you covered. Literally. And nothing on the market will leave you looking like a beekeeper. I tossed that Dermatologist-recommended unfashionable-fashion pamphlet in the trash with an evil cackle.

After that three-month riding hiatus and moving past my “I guess I will just become a vampire” phase, I began venturing back out into the light. And I jumped back into the saddle. Forcing myself to ride early in the mornings in an effort to avoid the strongest level of rays, I stashed bottles of sunscreen in every nook and cranny of my barn, my tack trunk, my car and beyond. I religiously wore my well-appointed collection of hats, long-sleeved UPF technical riding tops and super sweet arm sleeves when paired with a t-shirt. And lastly, I morphed myself into the equestrian version of Lord Helmet, purchasing several wide-brimmed helmets and sun visors for schooling, and I haven’t looked back. So buck you, melanoma.

In the saddle, I feel fairly protected. There is not much of “me” that sees the light of day. Out of the saddle, I continue to get my regular mole-overs, blood testing, and more. I’ve spent a small fortune on sunscreens in my quest to find the perfect concoction of face and body protective coverage, learning to embrace the zinc, greasiness and breakouts, all while knowing that maybe, just maybe, I won’t grow up to be a giant walking cancer or piece of human jerky.

So, what’s the takeaway for all of you outdoorsy, horseback riding types? It’s simple really. Begin by covering up, protecting that skin of yours, using sunscreen, wearing the wide array of sun-safe clothing available on the equestrian market, succumbing to the sun visor (sigh), cutting down on that excessive sun exposure, self-monitoring your body and most importantly, paying a visit to your Dermatologist.

Am I still that young, wild, California-born and raised quintessential summer child soaking in the sun and cruising the local beaches on horseback? Kinda. Just an older, paler, more informed version of that kid. And yes, I’m still cruising the beaches on horseback. I just try to do so on foggy days. Covered up. And slathered in sunscreen.

Photos by Taylor Rea Photography.

Written by Alli Addison

Rode-before-she-could-walk California girl Alli Addison spends her days in the whirlwind that is kids, husband, career, horses and real life. She favors Cubano-Style lattes, black and white stripes, gel manicures and a good pair of sweatpants. She also continues to ask Santa for a dappled grey jumper, year after year, to no avail.