I never thought I’d get cancer from the sun. I don’t sun-bathe. I try to wear a hat whenever I’m outside for long periods (a necessity for bald guys like me). So I was a little surprised to end up with a form of UV-induced carcinoma on my neck below the ear. Not terribly surprised, as I spend a fair amount of time outdoors while running, but this disease—the most common form of cancer in the U.S.—usually afflicts only those who are over age fifty.
At first I thought that I had nicked myself trimming my beard, but then the spot on my neck would bleed for no reason. My brother-in-law had seen similar stuff in medical textbooks, and his prompting got me to schedule an appointment with the doctor.
If you’re going to choose a form of cancer, basal cell carcinoma is the one to get. It’s not likely to metastasize, which means that unlike its evil cousin, melanoma, it doesn’t travel to other organs. However, no one should take it lightly. Like the spreading roots of a tree, basal cell carcinoma can work its way throughout the basal skin cells much farther than the visible spots extend. Let it go too long and you could lose chunks of your ear or nose; a Google image search reveals horrifying pictures in which it’s consumed large portions of someone’s face.
The first time around my dermatologist was too conservative with his knife, so I had to return for another excision after I healed from the first. The second time he brought to his office two lab technicians, complete with white coats, to test the samples immediately. He cut out more, cauterized the wound, and told me to come back in an hour. I hopped on the T for a quick trip to the store, and back again, tests showed there was more to cut out. Finally, with a 4 cm diameter crater in my neck (see the fourth photo below), the cancer was gone.
Because the wound was too large for stitches, my dermatologist sent me to a plastic surgeon, which still makes me feel like I should be hip and from California. Actually, I learned from the surgeon while he was at work on my neck that the “plastic” in “plastic surgery” refers to the malleable nature of his subject, not the sometimes artificial means plastic surgeons use. He also told me and the nurse a funny story about the time he was assigned to Michael Jackson. And he complained that that particular hospital distributes cheap scalpels, as he broke one after another on my skin. Being privy to such conversations is one of the benefits of local anesthetic.
Strangely, the recovery was almost painless. The first, small excision actually hurt more, and the dermatologist and plastic surgeon told me to expect pain, prescribing painkillers that I (fortunately) didn’t waste the money on. For some reason though it seemed to wear me out: for a couple of weeks I was very lethargic.
So, lessons learned (I hope): get strange spots checked out early, and use sun screen even where you don’t think you need it. But when I think about possible skin cancer scenarios, I thank God for what he spared me from.
Warning: the following photos may make you say “eww, gross.” I’ve pixelated the thumbnails to spare the gentle reader, but click the thumbnail to see the gory details at your own risk.