“You have black death.” With those words, I began my dance with skin cancer. It was the summer of 1988 and I was sitting in the Jacuzzi at a pool party in Whittier, California. One of the partiers was a nurse who spied the malignant melanoma gracing my left forearm. She continued, “That looks like melanoma.” I said, “What about Oklahoma?” I was advised to go get that “checked out.” (What a way to ruin a perfectly good party!) My only thoughts about skin cancer was that it was not a serious thing. It was something that was burned off the faces and heads of older gentlemen who had spent too much time on the golf course. The dance had begun. I didn’t realize that this dance partner was not Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers. This would begin a lifetime of wondering when I would get my foot stepped on or toe smashed. This dance partner never leaves.
My dance with skin cancer began years before that fateful day. I was born in Newport Beach, California at a hospital on Pacific Coast Highway across the street from the beach and the ocean. I was a regular beach goer as a child. Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, any beach, my mom would take my sister and me to enjoy the sun and sand. I recall having some sort of suntan oil on me, at least for the beginning of the beach day. Most likely it came right off after a dip in the cold, blue Pacific. Suntan oil in those days was a brown oily liquid or white, greasy slime. I remember clearly the billboards advertising suntan oil products with the little dog nipping at the little girl’s back side revealing the envied tan lines.
It was all about the tan lines in those days. I was typical of many of the children of my generation in Southern California. My parents were of northern European descent and had moved to California from the Midwest to work on the Apollo space project. Getting my Swedish skin a nice dark glow was always quite a challenge. Pool parties, beach days, theme park excursions and generally being outside all the time were part of the culture in which I grew up. I had no idea and my guess is that no one really knew that damage that this was causing. That dance began in the 1960’s and has not stopped to this day.
I don’t blame my parents or anyone particularly. I spent many a summer’s day laying out in high school wanting to look great for the prom or baking on the roof of my fraternity house in college. We all contributed to this culture of wanting to look or be a certain way. Who wouldn’t want to be at the beach or by the pool? Who wouldn’t want to get that “healthy glow.” I was certainly game. I was a willing dance partner...in the beginning. Knowing what I know now, I would have lived my life differently.
I ended up seeing a dermatologist who did a biopsy and confirmed my “black death” diagnosis. I had surgery to remove a large portion of skin on my arm. This surgery was so encompassing that the wound could not be sewn shut. This has been a forever reminder of the price I was paying for my years of skin abuse. It was not black death for me, but a wake-up call to take care of my skin and in a larger sense, be comfortable with who and what I am. My skin is pretty cool just the way it is. Oh, I still have that dance partner. Skin cancer is a lifetime concern for me, but I have a plan now to keep it off my dance card.
How well was your skin cancer diagnosis explained to you?