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My experience with skin cancer

  • Published
  • By Retired Col. Bill Malec
  • 375 AMW
May is skin cancer awareness month. I don't know if it was May or not when I was first diagnosed at 44 but it sure served to pique my attention. I've been a "believer" ever since!

Strange that someone would be identified with a basil cell carcinoma at a place with little to no sun. In my case I was stationed on Shemya Island, 1,500 miles from the Alaska mainland. The island is known for its weather; crappy, crappier, crappiest. The base commander once gave the entire population a "sun day" off when the morning unexpectedly dawned clear and the sun shone bright.

I discovered something growing on the back side of my right shoulder. The something would bleed when I ran a towel over it after a shower. If only to save my towels from stains, I thought I'd go in and see our one Air Force doctor for her opinion.

Skin cancer was new to me but the doctor obviously was very familiar with it. It didn't take her long to tentatively diagnose and she immediate set about cutting out the offending patch to then send in to be biopsied. A couple of weeks later the bad news arrived and she went in a second time to trim the wound up a bit more to ensure she got it all.

From that point on a series of dermatologists have been keeping me in stitches, and not necessarily in a good way. I've since had basil cell removed from my arms, neck, face, back, and shoulders and am pretty confident that the end is not in sight.

In addition to all those excisions I've also had skin growths removed by freezing, scraping and burning, and most recently by a long-term cream application. The latter is just slathered on the offending places twice daily and makes the superficial cancer boil away over five weeks or more.

You might ask how I ever got myself in this situation. Well it's really easy and it starts when you're really young. In my case I was a regular outdoorsy type growing up. In the summer I was in shorts and a t-shirt and didn't hesitate to bare my chest every chance I got. They called it suntan lotion back then, which shows the misdirected focus, but that was unheard of in my crowd. I can remember many a sunburn which resulted in me peeling large clumps of dead skin away.

I enlisted in the Air Force right out of high school, and subsequently spent a few weeks at Keesler AFB in southern Mississippi attending tech school. Airmen were warned early-on that sunburn that led to missing class would lead to administrative action. Imagine my consternation when, after a weekend on the Biloxi beaches, I looked like a lobster complete with a badly blistered chest. I toughed it out, missed no school, but evidently did irreparable damage to my skin. It's a sin that keeps on giving.

When I was older, but obviously not wiser, I took to tanning salons because I didn't have time to get out in the sun regularly to work on my bronzeness. It turns out in one of those rather space-age looking tanning machines you can do much more damage to your skin and in just a fraction of the time. What a bargain! I should have known better but just didn't pay attention.

As a repeat offender I see my dermatologist every 6-months for a complete body scan and more often depending on what is found. I've noticed that they all have great skin and I know why.

In between doctors visits I keep a keen eye out myself and take note of any irregularities on my skin that beg for additional analysis. I mentioned looking at every part of the body as you can have skin cancer in places where the sun don't shine like your private areas and even between toes and on the bottoms of the feet.

I'm just one of over 13.8 million Americans living with a history of skin cancer. Fortunately all mine thus far have been non-melanoma, so I a sense I'm one lucky guy. They call skin cancer a lifestyle disease, so it's highly preventable. That's good news for those of you with countless outdoor experiences ahead of you.