Saturday, December 10, 2011

Why I Get Militant About Skin Cancer

I try to keep my blog posts lighthearted most of the time. There's enough sadness and anxiety out there; I don't feel the need to dwell on it. I'm sure you've got plenty of your own without hearing about mine. I'd much prefer to do what I can to lighten the load by bringing you a smile and hopefully a laugh now and again.

But once in a while a subject comes up that I need to talk about, and this is one of those times. My Facebook friends know that I can go ballistic when I hear younger people talk about going to the tanning booth or getting sunburned at the beach (or the mountains or anywhere else). I find myself wanting to follow people around and become a stealth sunscreen ninja. And there's a reason for that.

Sun screen is a must have

My dad died of melanoma. He and his doctor overlooked a cancerous lesion until it was too late. The skin cancer was removed, but it had already spread. Melanoma doesn't just stay on your skin. The cells can travel through your blood stream and attack anywhere. My dad had a tumor in his throat, next to his carotid artery. They were unable to operate. The tumor grew, pressing against his windpipe on one side, making it difficult to breathe, and slowly cutting off the blood supply to his brain until he finally died. It was not pretty; it was not painless; it was not peaceful.

When I was a teenager, I didn't know the dangers of skin cancer. There was no such thing as sunscreen. No one had ever heard of SPF. If you were a lifeguard, you wore zinc oxide ("that white stuff") on your nose, but the rest of us did the opposite of what we should have done. We slathered on sun tan oil and baked ourselves in the sun. On purpose! I had friends who claimed you had to get one good sunburn to start your tan every year. I never really got tan; I just freckled. But first I burned. And still, you could find me lying outside coating myself with a mixture of baby oil and iodine hoping it would give me that beautiful tan everyone else seemed to be able to get.

I've had surgery for skin cancer three different times. Fortunately, none of them turned out to be melanoma. I've had one squamous cell carcinoma and two basal cell carcinomas. These are  slower growing cancers and are much less likely to spread to other parts of the body than melanoma. Every six months for the rest of my life, I will go to the doctor for a skin check and I will have to have various lesions frozen or surgically removed. These lesions are precancerous. Left alone they will develop into cancer, but I have a good doctor, and we usually catch them before they become cancerous. I see the doctor about them every six months, but I start to see new lesions within weeks of having them frozen off. I generally have 6-10 lesions frozen off at a time, and occasionally a deep one has to be cut out instead.

I'm not sharing this as a story of woe or a cry for sympathy. I'm sounding out a warning! I want young people to know that today's sun exposure will affect you for the rest of your life. Your pretty tan will someday lead to warty, scabby looking growths on your face, hands, and arms. Skin cancer and sun damage are not pretty, and the treatment for them is painful. And sadly, skin cancer left unchecked can be deadly.

Let's all enjoy a few more birthdays. Protect yourself from the sun and get any suspicious growths examined. Educate yourself about skin cancer. Then I can take a rest from my ranting.

*This post is sponsored by American Cancer Society.