With the days getting longer and warmer, it’s time to put away the winter clothes, get out the beachwear and start working on a summer tan, right?
Or … maybe it’s time to rethink that.
The winter just ended gave me a different perspective on the desirability of getting a “healthy” looking suntan. Or for that matter, spending more than a few minutes in the sun without protection from it.
I’ve never been one to spend hours lying in the sun in hopes of becoming the next George Hamilton. But like many people, I liked the idea of having a summer tan and was pretty casual about wearing hats or using sunscreen.
Not any more.
In addition to a love of music, a good story and an occasional tipple, my Irish ancestors passed on a predisposition for skin cancer. I’ve had carcinomas on my face frozen more times than I can count, and more serious ones surgically removed from my chest, one of my legs and one of my ears. Even with all that, I remained pretty lackadaisical about following doctor’s orders.
“Given your history,” a doctor once told me, “I don’t want you going from your house to your car without sunscreen.”
Obviously, he was exaggerating. I blithely ignored his advice, for the most part, using sunscreen when I thought about it but more often not thinking about it. Or, worse, thinking about it and not doing it.
That changed after an appointment with a specialist my dermatologist referred me to for a spot on my forehead. She did a biopsy; the lab work confirmed that it was cancer.
The reason she referred me to the specialist is that the procedure he uses results in minimal scarring. Layers of skin are removed one at at time and examined under a microscope. Successive layers are removed until all of the cancer is gone. The patient waits while this is happening. My appointment took about four hours.
It didn’t hurt a bit. I had no idea of the extent of the procedure until I got in my car, looked in the rearview mirror and saw the bandage. It covered almost half of my forehead. Part of it was nearly an inch thick.
All that afternoon, I waited for the anesthetic to wear off and the pain to start. It didn’t.
“A piece of cake!” I said to my wife. “Doesn’t hurt a bit.”
The anesthetic took about eight hours to wear off, then made up for lost time. It had been a long time since anything hurt that much. The three ibuprofen tablets I took might as well have been M&Ms.
The next morning, after a sleepless night, I called the doctor and asked for something stronger. My wife drove me to the pharmacy with the prescription, graciously refraining from making sarcastic remarks about my more or less constant whining.
The pharmacist wasn’t much help.
“We’re out of the painkiller the doctor prescribed for you,” he said. “We’ll have to order it.”
That day and the next were two of the most painful I can remember. I couldn’t think about anything but how much my forehead hurt. It hurt so much it made me nauseous. I’ve had three fairly major surgeries in my life, and none of them came close to hurting as much as that one little spot on my forehead.
Actually, it wasn’t so little. When I took the bandage off, the guy looking back from the mirror might as well have been Frankenstein. It looked like an angry caterpillar was crawling down my forehead.
Fast forward two months to the “wound-check appointment.” The wound had completely healed and left virtually no scar. Clearly my dermatologist made the right call in referring me to the specialist. There are still flashes of pain, but they only last a few seconds, are down to a few a week, and the specialist said they’d go away completely after three to five months.
Never would I have believed that such a tiny spot on a forehead could cause so much pain and angst. It put me in mind of Tom Menzel.
Menzel was a former neighbor and co-worker of mine who had a skin cancer removed from his scalp. Everything seemed to be fine, until it metastasized and killed him.
His last wish to his family and friends: Wear a hat and use sunscreen.
The type of skin cancer I had isn’t usually life threatening, and thanks to two excellent doctors serious complications were avoided. In rare cases, however, it can be fatal. It results from prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light, as in sun or tanning beds.
So I won’t be sporting a tan this summer.
Tans are overrated anyway. Don’t learn the hard way to heed Tom Menzel’s last wish. Wear a hat. Use sunscreen. It could save your life.