As a public service, I'm always happy to use my life experience — my many years of life experience — to help others. Today's lesson is "How Not to Live a Life in the Sun, Especially if Your Melanin is Minimal."
Melanin is a natural pigment in the top layer of skin that determines skin and hair color. It is light-absorbent and helps protect our skin from sun damage. But melanin can't do it alone.
The Mayo Clinic recommends common-sense precautions to safeguard one's skin against the harm of ultraviolet radiation: Avoid outdoor activities during the middle of the day, even if the sky is cloudy. Choose a broad-brimmed hat and protective clothing when you go outdoors. Use sunscreen year-round whenever you are outside, and reapply it every two hours. Wear sunglasses. Avoid tanning beds, which use artificial UV rays. Inspect your skin (all your skin, even the unmentionable parts) for any growths or changes to moles or freckles.
I admit I have not done a lot of these things, but a persistent sore on my thigh that just wouldn't heal led to a referral to a dermatologist.
"Tell me about your history in the sun," the dermatologist suggested.
Start with the sunburns, I figured. I told him how, when I was a freckle-faced kid spending summer weeks with my grandparents at the Jersey shore, my siblings and I got our first good sunburn of the season on purpose. We returned from our first day at the beach looking like boiled crabs. Once we'd suffered through the night of pain and chills and been coated with the paste of Noxzema, and once our angry skin had peeled, we were good to go, pronounced immune from sunburn for the rest of the summer. Our hair lightened, our freckles darkened, and our fair skin sort of tanned.
Back home at the public pool, we were similarly unprotected. My mother slathered baby oil onto her exposed skin and put little plastic spoons over her eyes while she sunbathed: I remember the oil floating on the water when she dipped into the shallow end to cool off. We fried ourselves, oblivious of anything called sunscreen. Sometimes my mother dabbed us with suntan lotion like the little girl on the Coppertone billboards, but it was almost an afterthought. Summer and sunburn went together.
That was my childhood.
The dermatologist listened to me with a look that said he'd heard this story before from people my age. Then he proceeded to investigate every inch of my skin. A nurse with an iPad took photos on his cue. This all felt like some kind of special humiliation for the elderly, but it was done swiftly and professionally. The doctor used what looked like a fancy can of whipped cream, aka liquid nitrogen, to freeze off some of the little barnacles he found growing on my epidermis.
A biopsy officially confirmed that I had skin cancer, or basal cell carcinoma. Basal cell and squamous cell are the two most common forms of skin cancer. They are also called nonmelanoma skin cancers, melanoma being a far deadlier diagnosis. The treatment was that the weird spot, actually a cluster of cancerous cells, had to be removed.
"So, we'll take care of your first skin cancer today," the dermatologist said at my next visit. The way he said "first" made me realize that the repercussions of my boiled-crab childhood were unlikely to end with this appointment: Basal cell carcinoma usually recurs.
The doctor pricked around the problem area with lidocaine, and then explained that he was scraping away the cancer like you'd scrape out the rotten spot on a raw potato before cooking the remaining firm part of it. I went home with a perfect circle resembling a bullet hole on my leg. Now it is healing, although the darkened mess left behind will most likely take its time fading. My dermatologist plans to check my whole body every year for further eruptions. I can hardly wait.
So, friends, listen to the Mayo Clinic.
I like to think that, as a mother, I was better at covering my own children with sunscreen when we went swimming, since they freckle like I do. But I could have been more committed to their safety. I only hope skin cancer is not in their future. I conclude this small life lesson with the observation that, as much as we swear that we are not going to be like our parents, we are sometimes a lot like our parents. Right down to our skin.