Wednesday, January 6, 2010

No more sun tans

Camp Connell, CA -- I gave up basking in the sun years ago.

I've always known that I had lousy skin, subject to burning and other sorts of afflictions. That's probably a result of the Scots-Irish heritage, which gave me blond/reddish hair, blue eyes and fair skin.

And when I was young, it was considered a rite of passage to get a good sunburn at the start of every summer. I never tanned well, but went through many a Gulf Coast summer with peeling nose and shoulders. The worst sunburn I can remember was at about 12 years old when I let the top of my feet get burned. That really hurt. I finally wised up and quit doing that, and any sunburns in the past 30 years or so have been by accident.

But, as a result of those years of damage and generally less-than-perfect skin I've been a regular customer of dermatologists for over 50 years, beginning as a teenager and continuing through this week.

When it caught up with me.

During a routine examination two weeks ago my dermatologist spotted some things he did not like, and ordered a biopsy.

And yesterday I had surgery for skin cancer.

Today that cancer is gone, but I am missing a chunk of my nose (not a part I use for anything), and have a patch of skin taken from behind my ear for a skin graft. This particular skin cancer had some deep roots.

The doctor -- my new best friend -- tells me I will have a circular scar.

I won't be any prettier, but then I never was proud of my nose anyway.

I am hesitant to say that I have joined the ranks of cancer survivors, since so many people suffer much worse and this particular cancer is both common and treatable. In many ways, this is not a big deal. So far all I have to give up is chopping and hauling firewood for few days, an encouraging thing, and I will lay low while the stitches hold.

But I will admit it has given me time to consider the benefits of modern treatments, the progress we have made in the decades I have lived, and the possibility that I am not immune to the ravages of age and bad choices made in my youth.

I certainly plan to continue doing the things I enjoy outdoors: hiking, skiing and sailing in particular. And I plan to continue to visit my dermatologist on a regular basis.

But my awareness has been raised to a new level.

And I hope my experience will encourage you to do the same, and that when my children reach my age they will be able to report on more progress on all kinds of cancers.


The following is a quick look at basal cell carcinoma, what it is and how it is treated. (This is NOT my nose, but a representative one...)

"Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common form of skin cancer, affecting approximately one million Americans each year. In fact, it is the most common of all cancers. More than one out of every three new cancers are skin cancers, and the vast majority are basal cell carcinomas. These cancers arise in the basal cells, which line the deepest layer of the epidermis (top skin layer).

"Almost all basal cell carcinomas occur on parts of the body excessively exposed to the sun — especially the face, ears, neck, scalp, shoulders, and back. On rare occasions, however, tumors develop on unexposed areas. In a few cases, contact with arsenic, exposure to radiation, open sores that resist healing, chronic inflammatory skin conditions, and complications of burns, scars, infections, vaccinations, or even tattoos are contributing factors.

"Anyone with a history of sun exposure can develop basal cell carcinoma. However, people who are at highest risk have fair skin, blond or red hair, and blue, green, or grey eyes. Those most often affected are older people, but as the number of new cases has increased sharply each year in the last few decades, the average age of patients at onset has steadily decreased. The disease is rarely seen in children, but occasionally a teenager is affected. Dermatologists report that more and more people in their twenties and thirties are being treated for this skin cancer. Men with basal cell carcinoma have outnumbered women with the disease, but more women are getting basal cell carcinomas than in the past. Workers in occupations that require long hours outdoors and people who spend their leisure time in the sun are particularly susceptible.

"Basal cell carcinomas are easily treated in their early stages. The larger the tumor has grown, however, the more extensive the treatment needed. Although this skin cancer seldom spreads, or metastasizes, to vital organs, it can damage surrounding tissue, sometimes causing considerable destruction and disfigurement — and some basal cell carcinomas are more aggressive than others.

"When small skin cancers are removed, the scars are usually cosmetically acceptable. If the tumors are very large, a skin graft or flap may be used to repair the wound in order to achieve the best cosmetic result and facilitate healing."


MikeInFla said...

Glad to hear you're on the mend, Sanders... and, you're not alone. Being of Irish descent, I should have stayed out of the sun altogether but likewise enjoyed tanning in my youth. Now, my semi-annual trips to the dermatologist allow him to find and remove the carcinomas early. The good news - MOHs surgery leaves virtually no scar, and after the large outbreaks are taken care of the small ones can generally be frozen off. (Not fun, but less invasive.)

I share your advice to all, especially young folks -- use sunscreen (SPF 30 minimum) and buy a good hat designed to keep the sun off your face and neck. You'll be grateful when you hit middle age...

A Bit Of Everything said...

Hey! My mom went through the same thing! I wish those lessons would pass onto our children. I was the same way with the sun growing up.