As summer hits its peak, consider this a cautionary tale for sun worshipers.
In the spring of 1975, what seemed like a good idea turned out to be a colossal blunder. During a college-break camping trip, a group of us decided to abandon the Chicago chill and head south. What possessed me, a fair-skinned guy, to slather myself in baby oil and lie out in the Florida sun, I still can’t say. But I was 21 years old, and we know that a college student's judgment isn’t always spot on.
Rather than golden brown, I turned lobster red, sporting the mother of all sunburns, one so bad, in fact, that I spent the rest of the trip coating my back, chest and head with various ointments in a futile effort to lessen the sting and keep sheets of skin from peeling off — even from my scalp.
Thirty years later, I began noticing reddish, scaly blotches on my scalp, so I went to my dermatologist. He believed I was suffering from eczema and prescribed a topical cream. Even as the blotchy area grew, he remained convinced it was eczema. So my wife — smart woman — suggested getting a second opinion. It took all of five seconds for my daughters’ dermatologist to look at my scalp and determine I needed a biopsy.
Sure enough, the test came back positive for the slowest-growing form of skin cancer, basal cell. Although the doctor told me it rarely metastasizes and is seldom fatal, it needed to be removed. And because the cancer had covered a nearly two-inch square portion of my scalp, I would need Mohs surgery. That’s the technique that allows a surgeon to slice off one layer of tissue at a time (conserving as much tissue as possible) and then test whether there is any more cancer present. If there is, the next layer of tissue is shaved off and tested. The procedure keeps repeating until there is no more evidence of cancer.
As you’re scalped — you’re alert, but a local anesthetic numbs the top of your head — you must wait until the surgeon gets the all-clear that no more cancer remains.
But that was just the beginning. Once the cancer was removed and my scalp had healed, I underwent a cranioplasty to re-form the skull. This was to ensure that skin transplanted from my thigh could be grafted onto my scalp. Once the transplant was done, there was the matter of a bizarre-looking, one-inch-by-three-inch section of my scalp that didn’t grow hair. Think of it as the clearing in the forest. I didn’t care so much how I looked when I gazed into the mirror — okay, I did — but I really didn’t want to subject the outside world, let alone my family, to the medical-textbook exhibit that was my scalp.