In my last column, I mentioned how I never get sick. Typing those words made me uncomfortable – like I was tempting fate. It’s like washing your car in the beautiful Colorado sunshine. You just know it’s going to rain the next day.
That’s how I felt, and it nagged at me. Was I really as healthy as I thought? I turned in my column, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I didn’t feel sick, but surely, at my age, there must be something wrong with me. Was there something I had overlooked? That’s when I remembered that thing on my back.
“That thing” is a tiny pinprick of a sore on my left shoulder blade. It’s been there for weeks…no, months. I’d noticed it one day in the shower. The hot water hit my back at a certain angle, and it stung. I figured that, while out hiking, I must have gotten stuck with a tree branch that punctured my skin. Or it could be a bee sting or a bug bite. Whatever it was, I dismissed it and went on with my life.
Weeks later, in the shower, I felt it again. Ouch. It still hadn’t healed. For a fleeting moment, I thought, “I need to get that checked out.” But then I was out of the shower and dressed and had forgotten all about it. Out of sight, out of mind. That scenario played out a dozen times over the months. Every time, I’d ignore it and get on with the day. But now, on this day when I’d had the nerve to write a column gloating about my good health, I felt like I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I googled the symptoms, then I called the doctor and made an appointment.
A couple of days later, I was lying face-down in an examination room having cells cut from the surface of that thing on my back. The doctor sent the cells to a lab, and a few days later called me with the results of the biopsy. It was basal cell carcinoma, she said. I know what carcinoma means – it’s cancer. I just didn’t think I could really have something like that. I’m never sick, remember?
May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. I didn’t plan to find out I have skin cancer this month, it just worked out that way. So, perfect timing for this column. The other good news is that the basal cell type is the most common skin cancer, and typically easy to treat. There will be another biopsy, this time at a dermatology clinic. They’ll cut more cells, look at them under a microscope, and keep cutting until they get them all. At least I think that’s how it’s done. If I’m lucky, that will be the end of it. The other good news is that I don’t have squamous cell carcinoma or melanoma, other skin cancers that can be more serious. The bad news is that even basal cell carcinoma can be fatal if it’s left untreated and spreads to other parts of the body.
Again, May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. What better time to get a full-body skin scan at your favorite dermatologist’s office? While you’re at it, pick up a fresh bottle of broad spectrum, 30 SPF or higher, water-resistant sunscreen. Apply, rub it in, then apply a second coat to get the full effects. Don’t skip your ears, neck, and shoulders. Get some lip balm with sunscreen too, and make sure you have sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays. For my eyes, I prefer wraparound “glacier glasses” with flexible temples to provide a good seal against the sun’s rays. You can get these at any outdoor retailer like Mountain Chalet or REI, or from your regular optician.
Skin cancer can take years to appear. Mine may have started a long time ago. Growing up, I spent a lot of hours on the beaches of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and California with a skimpy bathing suit, a bottle of Johnson’s Baby Oil, and no skin protection. Later, I spent many more hours hiking and climbing in the mountains. I had smartened up by then, applying and reapplying sunscreen liberally, but the damage had probably been done. However and whenever I got basal cell carcinoma doesn’t matter. What’s important is that I stopped ignoring the symptoms. And you can bet that if the dermatologist can get rid of this thing on my back, I’ll be wearing even more sunscreen every day and scheduling a full-body skin scan every year for the rest of my life. I may never get sick, but I can get skin cancer. Now I just need to get rid of it.
This blog first appeared as a column in the May 25, 2021 Gazette North Springs Edition.