Help with the Scary Stuff

Around the middle of May, I found out that I had basal cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer. I learned a lot about the condition since then, and most surprising to me was how many people I know who have had it too. Once I started talking about it, it seemed everyone had a story to tell about their basal and squamous cell carcinomas and their melanomas. These are all people who spend a lot of time outdoors in the sunshine and often at altitude, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. They also all had good outcomes, which was a relief.

The toughest part was the initial shock. After getting over that, everything went smoothly. My doctor referred me to Optum, a dermatology clinic, where PA Hubbard and Melissa took care of me. They applied a local anesthetic and performed an elliptical excision, which is an outpatient surgery where a football-shaped section of skin is cut away, or excised. A four-millimeter margin around the carcinoma ensures all the cancer cells are removed. The excised skin is checked again in a lab, after the surgery, to make sure they get all of it.

I must have been numbed up pretty good because I didn’t feel the cut at all. The eleven stitches – three on the inside and eight on the outside – felt like a gentle tugging. I was reminded of hemming my jeans when I was a teen and decided that’s what they must have felt like. In under an hour I was done. All I had to do now was keep it clean, keep it from drying out by applying petroleum jelly, and change the bandage twice a day. Easy enough.

What I didn’t count on was how hard it would be to change the bandage. When I broke my arm last fall, I came up with all kinds of ways to get things done with just one hand. And as much of a pain as putting a plastic bag over it was every time I took a shower, I could reach it just fine. This bandage-changing thing was a whole new challenge. The stitches were low on my right shoulder blade, just out of reach of my fingertips. After struggling through twists, turns, and contortions, I looked around for tools to help me out. Tweezers were just long enough to grasp the edges and pull a bandage off. A cotton swab dipped in petroleum jelly could reach the stitches, and my toothbrush was enlisted to smooth the adhesive onto my skin. Yes, changing my bandage was as fun as it sounds.

My biggest concern was sweating it off. The day after the surgery, I went up 11,499′ Mount Rosa, a roughly 14-mile, 4,000 feet of elevation gain hike round-trip. The new paved parking at the Powell Trailhead was a welcome sight, but the day was sweltering. Surprisingly, the bandage held up against the heat, the sweat, and my daypack. A few days later I hiked to Sandbeach Lake, then Flattop Mountain, in Rocky Mountain National Park. No problems, at least with the bandage. The following week, I spent a few days in the Flat Tops Wilderness. This was at the height of the heat wave, and the humidity was through the roof. I had four hikes planned, and everything was going well until hike #2. As I slung my pack over my back at the Outlet Trailhead, I happened to catch a glimpse of my shoulder in my car’s side mirror. The bandage was hanging by one edge, exposing the stitches. My toothbrush was back at camp, in a bear locker, along with my food and all the other smelly stuff I had brought with me. This was not good. I looked around helplessly – and locked eyes with a guy on the other side of the parking lot.

“Can you do me a huge favor?” I hollered.

I felt silly asking, but when I explained the situation, the guy, Mike, didn’t hesitate. He grabbed some nitrile gloves from his car (COVID leftovers, he said), removed the old bandage, dropped it in my baggy, and described the appearance of the stitched area.

“It’s healing nicely,” he said, “No infection. You should be able to stop covering this in a couple of weeks.” He finished up, applying a fresh bandage, then he told me about all the best hiking trails in the area.

I’m going back to the dermatologist this fall. He recommended full-body skin scans every six months for a few years, and if there are no recurrences, annually. I’ve traded up from SPF 30 to SPF 50, and I’m more diligent about applying it regularly on my hikes. But I’m less worried now. I know that a lot of people in Colorado get skin cancer and have good outcomes. I know there are people out there who can do pain-free surgeries. And I know there are people who will change your bandage, too, if you ask.

There’s a lot of scary stuff in the world. The shock of finding out I had skin cancer was tough, and changing the bandage was tough too. But learning there are kind people in the world willing to help me through it makes it a lot less scary.

This blog first appeared as a column in the July 13, 2021 Gazette North Springs Edition.

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