Sherry Young: After a lifetime of basking in the sun, it is time to pay the piper

Published: Thursday, Sept. 12 2013 3:00 p.m. MDT

The old rule was, “Get a base tan and then you’re fine.” Now any dermatologist will tell you tanning is not a protection for sunburn. You have already damaged your skin once you have a tan.

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If you’ve seen me in the last six weeks, please know I’m not contagious. The very fiery-looking red spots on the right side of my neck, some grown to the size of a quarter, are not catching.

After basking in the sun, especially during my teen years, fate is catching up with me. I have the over 40 disease, which in my case is the well over 40 disease.

You guessed right if you're thinking skin cancer, or a more proper term, basal cell carcinoma.

During our trip to Michigan for our son Jim’s dermatology residency graduation, he was most eager to have us visit his clinic. A spot on my shoulder he had noticed at Thanksgiving had grown and was itchy.

“That’s a bad looking BCC,” he muttered, then proceeded to excise a quarter-size piece of tissue. To be sure he got all the margins, he drew a triangle, cut on the dotted lines and sewed it up with tiny stitches.

Grit watched him cutting and stitching in amazement. This was his fun-loving teenage son grown to a man. Who would have guessed such expertise?

We ran out of time. Lucky Grit only got the “torch,” but he looked like a measles patient for a week or two.

During that same visit, Jim noticed two small pink spots on my neck, taking a tiny “shave” of one to confirm.

By the time we returned to Utah, he confirmed superficial BCC, so I checked in with our neighbor, Dr. Kraig Jenson. Prescribing some pricey Imiquimod cream, Doc told me to relax, saying, “It is just part of becoming mature.”

“True,” I replied, “But it’s an expensive and messy business this “becoming mature.”

The Imiquimod cream comes in a tiny packet to be meted out sparingly. By wiping a small amount of the cream over the target area, other spots magically turned pink, unmasking several other cancers. For me, they got meaner looking and crusty as the six-week period went on.

The cure rate is not as high as surgery and may reoccur, but for superficial BCC on cosmetic sensitive areas it can be an alternative. This magic cream can be used on the chest, back, neck, arms or legs if the skin cancer is early stage. It uses the patient’s own immune responses to attack the cancer cells.

In the glass half full vs. half empty scenario, at least it wasn’t squamous cell or worse than that, melanoma. Melanoma is a sneaky deadly cancer — the stuff of nightmares.

Fortunately, my vain days are behind me. Unfortunately, I am quite a few years too late. The damage is already done from every sunburn and way too many years of fun in the sun.

In defense, sunscreen wasn’t always described this way. Growing up we called it tanning lotion, but most of us preferred baby oil, protecting nothing. We didn’t really understand.

The old rule was, “Get a base tan and then you’re fine.” Now any dermatologist will tell you tanning is not a protection for sunburn. You have already damaged your skin once you have a tan.

Now a believer, I will use sunscreen with a good date and try to enjoy the sun with wisdom.

Grit complains and wiggles as I plaster him with sunscreen when he goes to play golf, but science is on my side. Men after 50 are twice as likely to develop and die from skin cancer for several reasons: they resist going to the doctor, they don’t like using sunscreen, they are in the sun more and unless they are hippies, have more skin exposed on their heads, faces and necks.

Sigh. Ignorance is bliss, but it always gets you in the end, or on the neck and back, in this case.

Email: sasy273@gmail.com

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