It's a cruel twist of fate to be lucky enough to live in the Sun Belt but not be able to go out in it.
After my husband Olof's four surgeries for in situ melanoma, the less serious form that hasn't penetrated below the top layers of skin, and my surgery for malignant melanoma -- the type that has -- we asked our dermatologist where we'd ever be able to go on vacation again. She replied, "Oregon in the winter?"
Both Olof and I are of Northern European extraction, the preferred hosts for skin cancer. When I was growing up, not only were there no effective sunscreen lotions, but teenage girls slathered themselves with a concoction of baby oil and iodine (early self-tanning product) then reflected sun right onto their faces with homemade aluminum foil sun reflectors. It is no wonder that in addition to malignant melanoma, I've had five Mohs surgeries for squamous cell carcinoma on my face and hands.
Regardless, I still walk on the beach near my home every day, even in summer. But no matter how hot it is, the only part of me that is exposed to the sun might be my fingernails. And usually not those. Bikini-clad teens roll their eyes at me like "What's the point?" From under the 6-inch brim of my sun hat, I try to beam back, "You have no idea what that tan is going to cost you." I've often thought I should get a beige beach-walking burqa made that says "Cautionary Tale" on the back.
The current theory is that melanoma comes from bad sunburns of one's youth. I certainly had plenty of those. The first warm weekend of spring, usually Memorial Day, I'd get absolutely fried. But if that theory were true, my skin cancers should have been on my back where I got the worst of it, happily snoozing on my stomach in the warm sun after a long East Coast winter. All my skin cancers have been on my face and forearms.
No, my theory is that what got me is all those weekend youth soccer and baseball tournaments in places that seem to have some unwritten law that there can be no shade within 100 yards of a youth athletic field. Despite a hat and heavy doses of sunscreen, and sometimes even a shade umbrella, I'd still get cooked on my face and forearms, the only places not covered.
It goes without saying that we have made our dermatologist a wealthy woman. (The office refers to us as "frequent fliers.") In fact, every time Olof has an appointment with her, he'll announce, "Well, time to make Dr. X's Mercedes payment!" But given melanoma's 100 percent fatality rate if not treated, better that she gets a nice car than we get dead.
I've personally known four people who have died of malignant melanoma, three of whom left young children, two of whom left infants. So, I've always been diligent about scheduling skin cancer screenings. I was therefore genuinely surprised, a mere two months after my last skin cancer check (and 10 months before I was scheduled to go again) to suddenly see what looked like a slightly raised freckle on my forearm. It didn't look anything like the grody melanoma pictures you see in doctors' offices. But it met four of the five markers for melanoma: it was asymmetric, had an irregular border, was a little darker than freckles usually are, and most importantly, it hadn't been there before. I called my then-dermatologist immediately. Sorry, they said, first available appointment is five weeks. I couldn't get in with any other dermatologist any earlier as a new patient. "Everybody thinks they have melanoma," soothed the receptionist at one.
When I finally did get in five weeks later, my dermatologist wasn't initially impressed but biopsied it anyway. Eight days later, she called me on a Wednesday night, biopsy results in hand, and said, "You're having surgery tomorrow." I couldn't believe how big a chunk they took out of my arm. "I hope you realize you just saved your own life," the surgeon assured me. I tell the grandtots that the big "Z" scar on my forearm was from an altercation with Zorro... that I lost.
Of course, after this surgery, coworkers flocked to my office to consult on suspicious bumps or freckles. "Does this look like melanoma to you?" they'd want to know. I'd review the five classic signs of melanoma with them and then implore them to schedule an appointment with a dermatologist.
It's been 13 years since that surgery so I'm cautiously optimistic that whatever ultimately does me in is not going to be melanoma. But since May 22 is The National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention's "Don't Fry Day," it seemed like a good time to mention it. I'm always happy to see that my five young grandchildren are slathered with sunscreen and wearing floppy hats when they're in the sun.