When I called my mom to tell her, I began with, “I have one more thing in common with Grandma, now!”
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an uneasy relationship with my own skin. I usually joke about it by pointing out that my skin knows how to do only three colors: pale pink with blue highlights, bright red, or pale pink with blue highlights and freckles. I’ve never been able to tan, and it takes hardly any sun at all to make me sunburn. Throughout my childhood most of the neighbor kids would tan during the summer months. I’d come to school in the fall, and nearly all my classmates would have varying degrees of tanned bodies, while I would be pasty pale and maybe a bit freckled.
And kids would comment on it. I might get a, “Gee, Breshears, don’t you ever go outside?” It hardly was the worst thing anyone ever teased me about, and there was often one or two other kids who had similar pasty complexions, though usually it was only the redheads.
And it wasn’t just the kids at school. Cousins who were my age would comment on it. Aunts, my grandmothers, and so forth would talk about how easily I burned, often with a reference to which side of the family I took after. Except during the snowiest parts of the year, my dad’s face, neck, and hands were always a dark, reddish brown, since he worked outdoors in the oil fields all the time. While if my mom let herself get any sun she’d turn pink, but it would quickly fade back to a color even paler than mine.
Several relatives on mom’s side of the family were diagnosed, over the years, with one or another of the forms of skin cancer commonly associated with overexposure to the sun. My maternal grandmother (the one I usually describe as my Nice Grandma), had several occurrences of basal-cell carcinoma over the years. After the second one had to be removed, she had been admonished by her doctor never to go out in the sun without a hat that shaded her face, among other precautions.
So in my teens the family response shifted a bit, the comments and scolding becoming more serious. “You know that runs in the family, so why didn’t you remember to put on sunscreen?”
Of course, it doesn’t matter how much sunscreen I put on, I always get a little bit burned.
Plus, ever since I moved to western Washington, I often get mild skin rashes at certain turning points in the weather. When the humidity/temperature balance flips one way with the onset of summer, and then the other in the fall, the rash will pop up somewhere. Usually I just have to put some topical cream on it for a few days and it goes away.
A few weeks ago I realized that a small red spot on my forehead had been there for a few days. It had appeared at about the same time that I’d developed a little rash on my collar, right at the spot where tee-shirt and undershirt collars rub. When I looked at the spot on my forehead more closely it was obvious that it wasn’t just a place when my skin had become irritated as I first thought, and not much like most of the rash on my collar. In fact, the more I looked at it, and compared it to descriptions and pictures from various medical sights on the web, the more convinced I was that it was an occurrence of one of the particular skin cancers Grandma used to get.
I pointed it and the rash out to my doctor when I was in for my annual check-up last week. He spent a longer time looking at the spot on the forehead than anything else, and even called in a medical student so he could show her the “textbook example” of a basal-cell carcinoma.
So, later today he’s removing it. It’s a simple out-patient surgery, an awful lot like having a wart removed. Basal-cell cancers (assuming that’s what this is) are never life-threatening. They can become disfiguring if not treated, and depending on where they form, since they just keep growing and growing forever, they can interfere with other organs functioning correctly.
There is one red spot on my collar that he said he can’t tell what it is just by looking. As of the last time I talked to him, he hadn’t decided, yet, whether he would just biopsy it, or if he’d go ahead and remove it, too.
Every red spot he finds is going to be biopsied, no matter what. Just to be certain.