How body lotion kept me safe from cancer

Aug 23, 2015

In June of 2011, we went to Hawaii. This was the soonest I could travel after chemotherapy; my immune system needed six months to start to bounce back before my doctor would allow me to fly in what’s essentially a germ-filled tin can.

This trip was budget-buster with first class flights, five-star hotels and the best restaurants. We easily justified this by saying we deserved it after the year we’d had. My cancer diagnosis was only one of the natural disasters we faced in 2010. In May of that year, my father-in-law underwent spinal surgery and lingered in the hospital for ten days before he died. In September, I was diagnosed with cancer. While I was still undergoing chemotherapy, my mother-in-law had a stroke. She was released from the rehabilitation center into our care the day before Thanksgiving. Because we were exhausted and I was trying to keep my diminished immune system away from crowds, we had planned a quiet day at home, just the two of us. That changed when Mom arrived, fresh from her stroke and needing a lot of help. I filed this under “Sometimes God likes to fuck with you a bit.”

By the time we got to Hawaii, we were desperate for pampering. We denied ourselves nothing and often reached even higher for a little more luxury. In an attempt to score room upgrades, I told the staff at the hotels that we were there celebrating the end of my cancer treatment. It didn’t work, but it didn’t matter since we’d already booked ourselves into enormous rooms with gorgeous views.

In Kauai, we stayed at the Grand Hyatt. This is a knock-out hotel with lush grounds, a quiet beach and intricate pool system. When we first arrived, we were greeted with fragrant leis. Walking into the lobby, we could see straight through to the water, with the enormous doorway perfectly framing the palm trees. Exactly what we envisioned when we thought of Hawaii. And it fully met my requirements of “let us sit by the water and have cute boys bring us drinks”.

Our suite was enormous with a large balcony overlooking the gardens. The marble-filled bathroom was larger than some hotel rooms. Fluffy white robes and thick towels waited for us, as did soft-to-the-touch bed linens and a mound of pillows. All of those amenities dimmed, however, when I saw the toiletries.

I tend to judge a hotel by the toiletries they provide. Recognizable brands score high, as do larger bottles. Combination shampoo/conditioner feels cheap to me, knocking a few points off the hotel’s score.

The Grand Hyatt had L’Occitane toiletries. Understand: this is a mainstream, not terribly expensive brand that one can easily buy. But to me, they seemed the epitome of luxury and I became obsessed with them. The bottles were larger than what you typically find in a hotel, which reinforced their value. In addition to the standard shampoo, conditioner, body wash and body lotion, they also had after-sun lotion. I had no idea what made after-sun lotion different than regular lotion, and I didn’t care. I hoarded it all. Every day before we left our room, I squirreled away the unopened bottles in the bottom of my suitcase. When the housekeeping staff cleaned our room, they had to leave more. I even called for a delivery one day, pretending that I didn’t already have a hefty stash hidden away.

I was thrilled with my plan, and ignored the fact that my suitcase was becoming increasingly harder to zip up. By the time we left, I had filled a plastic laundry bag with about 30 bottles. After several days of pilfering, it was time to travel to Maui. We did this on a small plane, and all of our luggage was weighed. Despite the overage fee I had to pay for my bloated suitcase, I didn’t throw the toiletries out. Every last bottle traveled with me from Kauai to Maui, then to Los Angeles and finally home to New York.

That’s where their story stalls. For the next few years, they occupied a great deal of space in the cabinet under my bathroom sink. I would occasionally use a bottle and it would remind me of our trip. But, for the most part, they just sat there in the dark, fading away. I felt pangs of guilt whenever I’d come across the bottles, but that didn’t make me use them.

This morning, over four years after that trip, I finally threw out the remainder. I made myself dump out the thick lotions (both regular and after-sun), rinse out the plastic bottles and recycle them. It seemed too easy to just toss them in the garbage. I wanted to teach myself what a waste it was to take all that and then not use it.

Why did I take all those bottles? I could easily buy them at home. It’s not a brand I use typically, and hadn’t really given it much thought before I saw them lined up in my luxurious hotel bathroom.

I think they represented comfort to me. I had just gone through a life-threatening situation, the ground beneath my feet no longer felt solid. Somehow, these became a lifeline for me, something to cling to and keep me safe. The fact that they were luxuriously rich and smelled divine was vital. Removing the caps and taking a big whiff of their scent, I could pretend that not only was everything fine, it was really great.

These days, I no longer have to pretend. Things really are great as I come up to the magical five years of being cancer-free milestone. It was easy for me to throw out my old toiletries masquerading as security blankets. And if another crisis hits us in the future, I will remind myself that hoarding body lotion isn’t necessarily the solution. Although one bottle would be nice.

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