From Baby Oil to Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Last updated: January 2023
I realize now that mother knew best when she said to stop using baby oil and a reflector and get out of the sun.
Burning for the tan
But it was the 1960s and what did a teen-ager's mother know? Everyone was doing it. When Memorial Day weekend came, we New Yorkers hot-footed to nearby beaches to get good color to wow the boys.
I burned first, then peeled, then finally tanned. I liked the way my nut brown skin looked up against the light blue work shirt I put on over my bathing suit.
One time my friend got so fried that my mother put tea bags in a bathtub for her in an effort to soothe her skin. Afterwards she applied Noxzema Medicated Skin Cream.
Skipping the sunscreen
Between college semesters one year, I lifeguarded at a pool. I don't remember EVER using sunscreen at the garden apartments while making sure the little children didn't drown when their parents disappeared.
In 2013, when I interviewed Dr. Otis Brawley, the American Cancer Society's chief medical officer, for a story about the risks of sun exposure, he told me,
"Melanoma is directly related to sun exposure from 30 years ago. When you go to the beach and see people lying in the sun, they are making melanoma," he said.
Sunbathing turned to squamous cell carcinoma
I wasn't making melanoma - at least not as of this writing - but I was making squamous cell carcinomas. My fair skin plus my sunbathing and lifeguarding set me up for it, and that propensity is exacerbated by my medical history.
Fifteen years ago I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive blood cancer. I received chemotherapy and four stem cell transplants over six years. Transplant #4 was the charm that saved my life. But it compromised my immune system, making me more susceptible to skin cancer. My dermatologist said I'm not alone: Squamous cell carcinoma in long term survivors of bone marrow transplant recipients is common. She assured me that metastasis is rare, but that knowledge doesn't stop me from worrying.
Also, I take prednisone to manage graft vs. host disease, in which donor cells attack the recipient's organs. My dosage is down to one milligram a day, but that is enough to be an immune suppressant.
Losing count of skin cancer recurrence
My squamous cells have been "in situ," meaning on the skin. I have lost count of how many I have had. The dermatologist has zapped some, prescribed Efudex for others, and referred me for Mohs surgery for many.
The healing process after some of them was incredibly painful. My latest, in my ear of all places, hurt for a long time. The most complicated was a quarter-sized circle that required a graft to be taken out of my side. I thought it would never heal, but it did.
Nine years after my last transplant, I spend more follow up in dermatology than in hematology. I should have listened to my mother, but since I didn't, what I can do now is be vigilant, wear sunscreen, and wear sun protection clothing when doing outside activities.
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