Lifestyle Lessons from Masters Athletes

Skin Cancer

Let's face facts: My skin cancer isn't pretty

By Ron Wiggins, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 20, 2002

When the radio news announcer warned that staying out in the sun too long causes skin cancer and to watch for red, rough patches on the skin, I laughed bitterly.

Then I picked up my upper lip, which had fallen into my lap.

A day earlier I had lip surgery for a squamous cancer, which is more serious than the garden variety basal cell keratosis, but not as dangerous as the infamous melanoma. Because the lesion was tiny and shallow and connected to a line of pre-cancers along the lip line, my dermatologist elected to "scrape" the area.

When the doc says "pre-cancer," here's what that means: cancer.

Can you say raw, oozing, puffy, mucousy mess?

I can't. Not with my upper lip swollen like a gourd squash. When people see me, they retch and turn away. You should have seen the release I had to sign. The language was all lawyer boilerplate, but in front of a jury it translates to:

"You and your hideous, twisted, lumpy, misshapen previous face will not recover so much as the tenth part of a farthing at law, not a sou, nada, nothing. If, however, you make a bundle as Son of Elephant man, we get half."

Was it as bad as all that? Naw. Except for the part where to deaden the lip, killer bee venom was injected in three places. I screamed and screamed.

On this, the third day, the swelling is down two-thirds and it bleeds only when I laugh, eat, talk and breathe. Soon, I am assured, I can LOOK FORWARD to a SCAB FORMING. My lawyer is looking at what that release says about loss of consortium.

Skin cancers are nothing new to me. I started getting them 28 years ago when I first moved to West Palm Beach. Every two years or so, I'd go in for a checkup, and without exception, my dermatologist would freeze a spot with liquid nitrogen or zap it with an electric needle.

Here's a heads up for the 10,000 dermatologists in South Florida. Freezing and zapping doesn't do a particle of good. They all come back. Why not just cut them out and be done with it? The scalpel jobs almost never leave scars (you guys are good).

My suggestion is that you develop a specialized scalpel for pre-cancers. I see it as a tiny melon scoop. Look Ma, no scar.

I don't know how many basal cell keratosises and squamous lesions I've had treated, but my guess is 30 and 10 respectively. My suspicion is that after every biopsy, the skin section is then forwarded to the Smithsonian, where they have reassembled two-thirds of a face that looks more and more like me every year.

My visits to the dermatologist are now coming at six- and three-month intervals.

Is there anything you can do to prevent skin cancers?

Sure. Be 10 years old when you read this, with no history of sunburn. Try not to have ancestors from the British Isles or Scandinavia. (My complexion is so Celtic that Sherwin-Williams uses me to get "Oatmeal" right on their color charts).

The best advice is to stay out of the sun and slap on the 45 Solar Protection Factor sunscreen before you leave the house every morning. My lotion du jour is Banana Boat pump-on lotion (not to be confused with the spray).

My first and best skin cancer lecture came from Dr. Ralph Keen, now retired, whose office was on Flagler Drive near Good Samaritan Medical Center.

First, he told me that the sun is a huge nuclear furnace spewing radiation. The radiation is cumulative and can damage genetic material in the skin when you are young and continue the process as long as you go outdoors.

"You'll mostly get basal cell cancer. It might kill you if you let it go 50 years, but you'll just keep getting uglier and uglier (warthogs will keep your picture on their lockers). The squamous you don't want to let go untreated. They can get into other systems. Melanoma is the bad boy."

Once Keen told me:

"Let's say you got a bad sunburn at the beach when you were 8 years old and then spent the rest of your life in a mushroom cellar. You would still be getting skin cancers popping up in your old age from that original solar damage."

Keen liked to show the futility of wearing dress shirts without an underlying T-shirt by slipping newsprint under your shirt and showing how you can read right through the cloth.

"What kind of protection is that?" he would ask. "Wear long sleeves and get those heavy Oxford cotton dress shirts and wear a T-shirt. You've got to keep that sun off you."

I remembered that lesson on a subsequent visit, and when he went to show me the newspaper trick, he promptly noticed that I was wearing the thickest cloth shirt he had ever seen. Impressed, he said, "Say, this is good stuff, where did you get it?"

I told him. Banana Republic. It was their ugliest shirt, but sturdy: made from mattress ticking salvaged when the French closed their Devil's Island penal colony.

P.S.: Since this is all about me, many have asked why I wear glasses after laser surgery. Answer: the glasses are bifocal for reading, plus a slight correction for distance in my right eye. The only downside to the surgery was a glare problem at night, corrected by a special lens coating. I'd do it again in a second.

Copyright © 2002, The Palm Beach Post. All rights reserved.

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