My skin cancer journey

Hi there!

Today's feature has been written to coincide with Skin Cancer Awareness Month 2020 which runs from the 1st to 31st of May. The campaign aims to raise awareness of the dangers of unprotected sun exposure and educate the public about the ways to help prevent skin cancer. UV exposure from the sun is one of the main causes of skin cancer and also one of the most preventable. This campaign hopes to reduce instances of skin cancer and increase the likelihood of early detection through education. 

During the month, people who have been affected by skin cancer are encouraged to get involved by sharing their stories on all forms of social media using the hashtag #MySkinCancerJourney, and everyone is invited to share information about sun safety, skin cancer prevention and early detection with friends and family. 

These photos are taken from my trip to Cape Town in January 2019 when I was oblivious of the dangers of skin cancer. I'm an every day sea swimmer and have always thought that my half hour in the ocean would be helping me to not only keep fit, but also get my daily dose of vitamin D. Oh what a healthy bunny I thought I was!

Fast forward 6 months and I had been referred to a skin specialist as a result of some patches which I thought were eczema. The itchy, flaky sores had been quietly growing and spreading across an area of my upper back for what may have been months if not years. I was questioned about my sun exposure, in particular about sun bathing, which I rarely do. On further questioning it turned out that my daily swim affording me of my dose of vitamin D was in fact far too much for my fair skin. Ten minutes maximum is all I ought to subject myself to and even then, just showing my forearms for that length of time would be perfectly adequate. Instead, the sun's rays hitting my skin through the water were effectively intensifying the sun damage. The diagnosis was Basal Cell Carcinoma, the least dangerous form of skin cancer, but it can still be disfiguring if left untreated. In November I travelled to the mainland to have the two deeper lesions cut out.

By December the wounds had already started to heal nicely and 6 weeks after the surgery the stiches were removed. The other patches were being treated at home with a chemical cream.

Another month down the line and both kinds of treatment were looking similar and healing well. I had been banned from the sea after surgery and missed almost 16 weeks of swimming thereafter. Staying out of the water ensured that I didn't pick up any bacteria in these open wounds. During that time I resorted to lunchtime beachside walks to get my daily dose of ozone.

Another month later and the wounds had healed and the skin was settling down again.

And now this is how the area has mended. The excision has left me with little mounds of skin that are prone to itching, but I can only think that's still part of the healing journey.

This was my pre-cancer norm as far as swimwear was concerned. A swimsuit and not a jot of suncream. Pah, half an hour in the early morning sun was no risk at all - oh what a fool I was!

And now for me, cover-up is the name of the game. I've invested in some swimwear to protect the vulnerable areas where I've had treatment. I use factor 30 suncream on my legs, but I'm not confident that I could reach all of my back and get full sun protection. If you're a regular sea swimmer or any other outdoor swimmer, then do think about your own skin type and if you're doing enough to keep yourself sun-safe. The past six months have made me reconsider if it's more important to wear a natty little cossie or to guard my skin from further damage.

What I hope you may take away from this is that even in the UK we can get skin cancer. My daily sun exposure is what accelerated my own condition, but I would advise anyone who exercises outdoors to take note of any moles or skin blemishes that become a permanent feature. Take photos so that you can monitor any changes in size, shape or condition of the area and if you notice anything different I would urge you to visit your GP. I know of two friends who had moles on their legs that turned out to be melanomas. One of them had surgery and has fully recovered and the other is still undergoing treatment two years after diagnosis. 

The other thing I've learnt through the Sun Awareness website is the danger of using sunbeds as they too can cause skin cancer. If you want to sunbathe, then do so safely using at least a factor 30 and reapply after swimming. Avoid the midday sun and don't allow yourself to get burnt. And follow the advice of Slip, slap, slop for young children - slip on a tee shirt, slap on a hat and slop on some sun cream. Our recent Stay Safe advice must surely extend to our sun awareness too, now that we're on the brink of summer. Last of all, please check out The Big See website to find out how you can protect yourself from this form of cancer which kills two people every hour.

One final link worth looking at is from the Skin Cancer Foundation. It dispels the myth of the healthy tan - it's a must read.

Thanks so much for joining me!

Anna x


Escape from storm Ciara

Hello and welcome!

If ever there was a day to escape from reality then surely it's today when the whole of the UK is being battered by Storm Ciara with winds forecast at 80 mph, huge waves pounding our coasts and power cuts threatening many. So let me lead you away from all of that and join my friends Kate and Fiona as we revisit a day last August for a post-work sea swim.

Our cycle route to Pentle Bay took us along the Abbey Drive through lush green vegetation under majestic trees. Excitement and anticipation added a frisson to our babble of chat about the state of the tide, wind direction and the potential for jellyfish, because today was no ordinary day as we were being shadowed by a film crew and also professional photographer James Darling, who were collecting material for a marketing project for Tresco Island. Our daily dip was the final scene to be captured for use in the recruitment drive for the 2020 season.

The photo shoot had none of the luxuries of hair and make-up nor has James photoshopped these images. I want to talk about this first as vanity tripped me up when I first viewed the photos. I'm pretty much at ease with being seen in my swimsuit as it's what I wear at some point most days, but, somewhat naively, I hadn't really considered how I might be seen through the (professional) camera's eye. Well, it seems that the reality of my self-image needed some radical recalibration! In my head I suppose I must still think I have the figure of my 30 year old self. Aren't we all a bit like that? We remember ourselves in our prime, holding that impression in a handy copy and paste mode when the lumpy truth threatens our mental well being. Issues with body image can haunt us no matter what age it seems. I continue to speak out to shed light and help dispel shame. I'm not overweight nor claim to be, but still feel under pressure due to the imagery we're subjected to daily. 

I know that I often publish photos of myself in a swimsuit, but like most bloggers I choose to share the best, most flattering and certainly never back views! I was initially shocked then downhearted at the rear view of myself. Cellulite and drapey skin are ever present in these shots forcing a certain amount of coming to terms with my 62 year old body. But as my dear husband kindly - and I do mean kindly - pointed out, I write with honesty and try my best to show myself as I truly am. What is the use in me trying to inspire women of my generation when I'm still deluding myself as to who I am? To this end, I'm including photos that I would normally omit as after all, we don't want to scare the horses do we? But, joking aside, if you ever seek me out I don't want you to be shocked after seeing me in soft focus for so long. My fragile ego desires me to be perfect and the perfectionist in me would like that too, but this is the truth of the matter and it deserves or begs no pity from you. Here I am, warts cellulite an' all!

After a certain amount of coming to terms, I decided to post this photo on my Instagram with this text - "We're all equal in the sea, our little heads bobbing above the water, laughter in the air and salt upon our tongues. Age, cellulite and wobbly bits all fade into insignificance as this common bond of wild swimming knits our friendship deeper." And really that's what this post is all about. For years I've been a solitary swimmer, seeing the time as one for meditation and reflection but, last summer was one of group swims which brought new dimensions and time to enrich friendships and forge new ones.

That post-swim energy has us all buzzing, talking about stray seaweed feeling as if it was tentacles of jellyfish. Fiona hates seaweed almost as much as jellyfish.

All cosied up, it's time for a hot drink as the discussion turns to the next swimming adventures for each of us. Kate wants to crack her freestyle stroke, Fiona had plans for the inter-island swim only a couple of weeks away and I was gearing towards my swim around Tresco. 

Previously I might have balked at showing you this necklace choker of wrinkles, but I'm biting the bullet and sharing what's normal for my age. (I'm working at removing perfect and replacing it with normal.) 

As storm Ciara rises in ferocity outside my window, I'm drawing on the feel-good factor of this little outing. It never ceases to amaze me that we can have this fun without spending a penny. Mother Nature has given us the most beautiful of playgrounds here on the idyllic island of Tresco and that's something we always voice when we stop to enjoy the view. 

We're so lucky to live here!

All photos by James Darling courtesy of Tresco Island


Training day

The day after our last summer show, this was me, out in deep water in training for my big swim. My plan has been to crack the leg from New Grimsby around the North End of the island through Kettle Neck which is the bogeyman as far as I'm concerned. Kettle Rock is exposed, to a greater or lesser degree, according to the tide. Often it's not safe to pass through the neck of water as the tidal surge can lift a boat towards the rocks on either side with dangerous speed. If it can lift a boat, then of course it can easily wash a swimmer against the rocks too. 

This was my second attempt to swim this leg. It was Saturday morning and the tide was coming in, meaning I was swimming with the tide, giving me the best advantage possible. Much as the physical advantage was with me, mentally I was a bit wobbly. I much prefer swimming alongside the beaches as the they not only look pretty but offer an easy exit. Not that I would be exiting onto the rocks on these long swims as Steve accompanies me in our boat which has a set of steps for me to clamber onto if I need to. Still, this shoreline conjures up fear in my belly. Long distance sea swimming is similar to long distance running as it's all about having the right mindset. Some days that's easier than others.

Behind me is Cromwell's Castle, about halfway into my quest. I'd settled into my rhythm by then, breathing steadily and counting my rolling strokes in one yacht, two yachts, three yachts ... The counting helps to focus the mind, stopping that element of panic that takes me over when I consider being out here doing this crazy thing that is wild swimming. Feel the fear and do it anyway, never felt so real.

The end of the island is just coming into sight with Kettle Rock beyond when my trusty boatman made the call to take me out of the water. There was a ground sea on creating a tidal surge over the rocks, making it too risky for us to pass through this morning.

You can probably read the look of relief on my face. I wasn't sorry that Steve had made that call. It had been a lively swim so far and it was only going to get more so as I rounded through the neck. 

We turned tail and headed back home.

That afternoon I decided to walk the coastal path above where I'd swum. Seeing the stretch of water, imagining my strokes cutting through the water, counting my breath, one yacht, two yachts, three yachts ... 

The big black rock on the right, beyond the shore is Kettle Rock, my nemesis.

It was interesting to watch boats choose the outside line, avoiding Kettle Neck completely. These guys know what they're doing, and so does Steve having spent almost all his life here, messing about in boats, learning to read the sea, respecting the times to not even be on the water when it's too wild. If I'm to swim around the whole of Tresco then I need to leave the worrying to him.

The view looked picturesque, but when I was out there this morning, it felt anything but.

Less than 24 hours later and I was back in the water, making another attempt at rounding Kettle Rock. It was 7am as we left New Grimsby, the sun hidden by the clouds, the tide coming in, and the wind had dropped leaving the sea looking more like a calm lake. I felt completely different this time. "You can do this, you can do this, you can do this!" I'd repeated to my reflection as I was zipping up my wetsuit. The fear in my gut had been replaced by excitement and I was ready to give it another go.

With no waves to distract me, the swim became easy, the stroke a repetitive rocking, a meditative motion that calmed me, each action a gentle movement that was part of a rolling dance, each breath an exchange of inhale and exhale that happened mindlessly. This was flow.

As we rounded the end of the island, the swell of the Atlantic stole the calm waters introducing a lively aspect to the swim.

And then, without too much fuss or fanfare, I was suddenly through the Neck and out of the other side. Steve had shepherded me along the way, guiding me as I peered up from time to time, pointing me in the right direction. His face, alert yet calm, telling me it was safe. My success was a joint effort - we had done it! 

Now that I've achieved this leg, I feel much more optimistic about the round island challenge as a whole. Steve and I are looking at the tide chart to find the best day to plan our outing. The weather will play a big part too so we hope to find the perfect combination of wind and tide making this a feasible venture within the next few weeks. Wish me luck!

                                                                                       Anna x

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