Wear your Sunscreen

I grew up in Santa Barbara and spent my formative years in the 70's. All I cared about was looking cool and impressing people. In the 70's it was all about feathered hair and suntans. Well, my hair was a disaster. I was cursed with a head of curly locks. Sure, people pay good money to have their hair curled, but that's not what I wanted. I wanted hair like David Cassidy; that flows in the wind and falls back into a perfect feather on the sides. Suffice it to say, I was a disaster on the hair front.
So I had to make up for it with a deep, dark, glowing tan. Once again my genes were against me, as I hail from a hearty UK stock on my father's side and German/Dutch on my mother's. I didnt' have a lot of melanin, so I had to spend HOURS and HOURS in the sun just to get the slightest browning.
As a kid, surfing, swimming, playing tennis and soccer, I had plenty of opportunity to get tan. And we believed back then that sunscreen was for sissies. In fact, we didn't call it sun screen back then, we called it sun tan lotion. We didn't know about the dangers of sun exposure. All I knew was that I wanted to be brown.
In the 1990's I started to become aware of the harmful effects of the suns damaging rays. I started to see the sun tan in a whole different light. It now looked to me like skin damage, and not the sexy brownness that I used to see it as. It's funny how our perceptions change.

So I stayed out of the sun like I was a vampire. I completely lost my tan lines. I was proud of how naturally pale my skin was. Especially since I knew now how healthy it was to be free from sun damage.

Twenty years later... 2010. I haven't been in the sun for two decades. I notice a 'pimple' on the back of my neck. I'm a hairy guy and I get the occasional ingrown hair, but this didn't act like a zit or an ingrown hair.
It wouldn't heal up and I couldn't pop it or squeeze the life out of it like I could do to most carbuncles. It would just linger. I searched for the ingrown hair to no avail. I showed it to my friends and they all said, "That's just a pimple, don't worry about it." And if you looked at it, there's no reason to think it's anything other than a harmless bleb.

Finally, after dealing with this for about four months, I thought I should go have it looked at by a doctor. The doctor looked at it, tried to squeeze it a little and finally told me it was nothing. But I had a feeling it wasn't nothing. She said she'd refer me to a dermatologist if it would make me feel better, and I said, "yes it would make me feel better"

By this time, both of my parents and many of my old Santa Barbara, beach-bum friends had been diagnosed with skin cancer. I knew I was a candidate and I wanted to be sure.

The dermatologist's reaction was similar to the general practitioner's. Attempt to squeeze it. Shrug. It's nothing. "But, if it you want, I can remove it and send it to a lab for testing." Yes, I said. Even though I didn't have insurance and this was going to cost me hundreds of dollars, I wanted the lab to see it and to tell me it was fine. I needed that reassurance.

The following week I got the message from the dermatologist. "Jason, we have your test results in and we need you to come in so we can discuss the results and what the next step will be." !!!

So it turns out that it was a squamous cell carcinoma, but we caught it in enough time that it hadn't spread throughout the rest of my body.

Just a little side note here: My mother, four years earlier, had a tiny bit of cancer in her eye. No big deal. Only she didn't catch it in time and it silently metastasized to her liver and she was dead about four months later.

Yesterday, I went to another dermatologist referred by my original dermatologist. She cut the offending tumor out of my neck and also 'took a healthy margin of tissue surrounding it" She said this is one of the few types of cancer that we can 'cure' by completely removing it before it gets a foothold.

It seems that my days of youth spend worshipping the sun have a price. And the gestation period of these types of cancer can be around 20 years. She also told me that now that I've developed this, that I have a 40% chance of developing it again.

When she cut my neck she gave me a choice. I could opt for stitches which would speed the healing and create a nice, slim line scar, or I could opt to forego the stitches which would take about six weeks to fully heal and leave a round, red scar. The difference was that with the stitches, I'd have to go a week without exercising because if I pulled the stitches out it would ruin their effectiveness. I knew I wouldn't be able to do that, so I opted for the big red scar. She told me that if i didn't' like the scar after it formed that she'd be happy to fix it for me at no charge.

I'd like to interject at this point to talk about the procedure. I'm amazed at how casual it was. I just went into a room and laid on my side on a table. The doctor walked into the room, having been prepped by the nurse with all of her sterilized equipment, and started to work. She gave me a shot of local anesthesia which was the only pain I felt. Like a pin prick.

She told me that this anesthesia would prevent me from feeling pain, but not vibration and/or pressure. So, what happened was I could feel and hear her snipping and tugging away at the flesh on my neck. I was so thankful I couldn't see it, but the sensations were quite vivid enough. As I heard the snipping and felt the pulling, she informed me that the skin on the back of my neck was quite tough, which was a sign of sun damage.

I'll never forget the sound of her cutting through my tissue.

Now, I have to wear a bandage for the next few weeks. (What a drag) And I have to keep it moist with applications of a thick, Vaseline-line substance (or, if I run out, she says Vaseline is fine to use, too).

But at least I can still teach my classes and work out and not have to worry about keeping my neck stationary for a week.
Underneath that bandage is a giant hole. The next month or so, it will be my life's work to keep this hole clean and allow it to heal properly.
This photograph
is literally the first I've seen of this hole. It's been bandaged until now. I just removed it for a shower. I was warned not to let the shower water hit the wound directly. The water comes out of the showerhead at 80psi of pressure. Did you know that? I didn't. That's a lot of pressure. Who knew?

So the moral of the story is to wear your sunscreen. Don't be a hero because the stuff will get you later, when you're not looking. Also, sun tans are NOT healthy. Nothing about them is. They are evidence of skin damage, which is not something to be taken lightly.

We all need a certain amount of exposure to direct sunlight every day to be healthy, but that amounts to about 15 to 20 minutes each day. Laying out in the sun should be right up there with smoking cigarettes and drinking soda as one of those things that we used to do before we realized how harmful it was.

Take the lesson from me and enjoy your healthy life.


dave said…
Jason, I think that it is not accurate for you to describe what you had as a "near-death experience." While squamous cell carcinomas are something that definitely need to be dealt with, the chance of them metastasizing is small, if they are discovered early enough, which obviously yours was. But to characterize your condition at this stage as "life-threatening" is an exaggeration. I'm sure what happened to your mother made your concern even more intense, but it does no good to over-dramatize what is a frightening, but manageable condition. I have personally had to deal with both a basal cell carcinoma and melanoma, so I feel as though I can offer my opinion here.
Hi Jason, My niece had one patch of squamous cell carcinoma, had it removed. Six months later there were dozens of them on her back, she had them removed. The doctor told her that if she doesn't stay out of the sun, she'll be dead sooner than she'd like. In her instance, it WAS life threatening. I believe that ANY kind of cancer is life threatening, to minimalize the damage any form of cancer can do to the body/mind/emotions is frivolity.

I had basal cell carcinoma on my right breast. Had it removed (under similar circumstances as you Jason...on a table in the doctor's office. They deadened the area (OUCH) and just before he started to cut/scrape away, I told him I was going to close my eyes. He said "Me, too". I started giggling and couldn't stop. It was his way of lightening up a rather traumatic experience!

I appreciate your bringing this up on FB. So many people walk around with these deep dark tans thinking that they look more sexy, or striking or whatever. I'll take my fair skin any day over a leathery dried out old prune look...or worse.
Anonymous said…
HiJason, I'm Jessica, Jill's niece. Just to correct her statement, I did not have squamous cell carcinoma. I had and have MELANOMA. It took three years and four doctors before one would even take the spot that I suspected seriously and when they biopsied it, well it was positive for melanoma. I now have a 9 inch scar on my lower back, as well as a 5 inch scar on my shoulder blade from the latest melanoma they took, 8 of those red circular scars from punch biopsies, three claw like scars from punch biopsies with stitches and a large circular scar on my arm from a botched biopsy. Every three to six months I have to return for more removals and biopsies. I recommend that you not go to a regular dermatologist from here on out, but find, if available, a Moh's surgeon, derm that specializes in skin cancer. Most derms are unfortunately as ignorant about skin cancer as general practitioners. I'm lucky because my derm considers my situation very serious since I have a family history AND has an initial diagnosis at 36 as well as a huge history of sun burn being an ex swimmer, as well as recurrent melanoma. It's important to find a practitioner that will listen and biopsy even if they think it's nothing, because the truth is, as you found out... they are often wrong.
Jessica, Thanks for the tip. I'll look around for a Moh's surgeon.

I already have another spot on my face that I'm keeping an eye on.

Best of luck to you with yours.

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