Mom warned me. Even her mother, my Nana, warned me. But I didn’t care, nor did I listen.
“Stay out of the sun,” they would say. “Don’t lay out. Always wear your sunscreen, no matter what. If you go outside, wear a hat.”
What insecure, pale-skinned teenager is going to listen to that? Not me. I was too desperate. I wanted to look like my olive-complected siblings. I wanted the color of my skin to match my hispanic last name so my classmates would stop calling me White Mexican. I wanted Mom to stop rehashing the story behind my nickname,Tinky — short for Hostess Twinkie, her favorite craving during her pregnancy with me. She would often joke that my skin color was due to the white filling of the Twinkies. Wish I could have laughed about it then like I do now. But I couldn’t.
I conquered my skin insecurity by doing what every other teenager did in the 70’s and 80’s: I sizzled in the Texas sun, basting myself with baby oil or the lowest SPF lotion I could find. Before dashing out to one of my marathon lay-out sessions,my once-sun-worshipping-turned-anti-tan Mom would sternly remind me: “Be careful. Remember when you were little how bad your nose peeled? You don’t want that to happen again, do you?”
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I always thought (cue mental eye-roll here).
Even though I acted like Mom’s fear tactic didn’t affect me, inwardly I’d cringe, reflecting on those two consecutive summers of my early childhood when my nose was so badly sunburned that she had to take me to the dermatologist to get a prescription-strength cream — the same kind likely used for second degree burns. I’m not exaggerating. My shredded nose looked like a cross between Rudolph and post-plastic surgery Michael Jackson.
But it wasn’t until after nursing school AND a series of skin cancer scares with Mom, Nana, and Popo (my grandfather) that I began to heed their warnings. For some reason, the deep indentation on top of my Nana’s nose resulting from a cancerous mole removal seemed more magnified. Reality hit. I got scared. I made a vow to myself at the tender age of 22 to embrace my pale skin. My tanning days were over.
My newfound commitment came with its own challenges — especially the time I walked into work as a newbie nurse wearing workout shorts. My pale skin wasn’t thick enough to handle the laughter and teasing from coworkers sitting at the nurses’ station.
“Oh my God, look at your white legs.”
“Get out your sunglasses.”
“I’m going start calling you White Legs Lozano.”
I took it in stride, gracefully smiling, reassuring them that I’ve heard it all before. Except for the White Legs Lozano — that was a new one. Even though it was funny, it still stung.
Thankfully, one of the doctors who happened to be in the mix of fun-loving teasers must have seen past my brave front. He later on apologized in his own sweet and very creative way, offering a life-changing perspective that has stood the test of time.
“Listen, baby girl, don’t let this get to you. You hear me? One day, pale skin will be in, and when it is, you’ll be right there on the top of the list of what healthy skin looks like. Don’t need to be tanning and sh*t. Just stay who you are.”
I remember feeling liberated by his encouragement and even a tad giddy as we went over the names of well-known celebrities, like Madonna and Nicole Kidman, pioneers of the pale skin aesthetic. From that day forward, I used his little pep talk to stay on track and combat the insecurities that had once plagued me. “Pale is the new tan” became my new motto.
Unfortunately, that kind of diligence didn’t spare me from what occurred just six weeks ago.
I knew something wasn’t right when the little pimple smack dab in the middle of my chest wouldn’t go away. Given my habit of picking, you can imagine how determined I was to get something out, but nothing. Within a matter of days, it morphed into this translucent-looking wart that started to itch and bleed. Knowing my family history with skin cancer, I wasted no time in getting it checked out by the dermatologist where they immediately biopsied it. The next week, I got THE CALL.
“Hello, Mrs. Lackey. I’m calling to inform you that the results of your biopsy came back as a type of skin cancer called Squamous Cell Carcinoma…”
While my heart beat a thousand times per minute, the P.A. went on in her matter-of-fact tone with details about the prognosis: 99% cure rate if properly taken out, the type of surgery needed, and the warning of a big scar in case cancer had spread to surrounding tissues.
Not going to lie, the days leading up to my surgery were unpredictable. One minute, I was peaceful. Everything is going to be alright, Marla. Remember, 99% cure rate if they get it all. Thank you God that it’s not melanoma. The next minute I was sweating bullets. Oh God, what if the margins aren’t clear of cancer? They’re going to have to dig and dig. I don’t want to have a crater-looking scar on my chest. Oh no…what’s this other bump on my face?
A few day later, after endless Google searches, reassuring talks with family and friends about their similar encounters and lots of prayers, I knew I was in the right mindset to handle my little surgery.
Sitting in the waiting room the morning of my procedure, my thoughts turned to my parents — as with every milestone or crisis that has occurred in my life since their passing, Mom and Dad, please pray for me. I’m starting to get nervous again. I REALLY don’t want them to dig…
My thoughts were interrupted as I noticed the woman sitting next to me. The bright orange cooking magazine she was reading had the name Sandra written on top. Sandra was my mom’s name. I knew instantly that was a heavenly sign from Mom to help chill me out. And it worked. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. Thanks, Mom, I feel better now.
But wait — there’s more! Dad wanted in on the action too. As I walked toward the exam room, another patient down the hall called out to her husband, “Robert,” (my Dad’s name) “We’re over here in this room.” I felt comforted hearing his name out loud. I I wanted to cry, but I held it together. Hi Daddy. Thank you for being with me.
I’m happy to report that the procedure went very well. The cancer is all out, and they didn’t have to dig. The doctor informed me that the type of cancer I had was the result of skin damage that occurred from the ages of six to eighteen. Go figure.
While heading towards my car, totally relieved everything was over, I noticed a text from my sister. I opened it to find a picture she had taken of a stranger she was sitting next to at Chick- fil-A who happened to be an exact replica of Mom. I had to catch my breath. I began to cry. Oh Momma, I love you. I know you’re here with me. I just know it.
Feeling high on love, I reapplied another round of sunscreen on my face while carefully dabbing some around the white gauze bandages on my chest. I even put on my hat in honor of Mom and Nana’s teachings. I drove away from the Skin Cancer Clinic that day embracing the heck out of my pale skin. All was well.