The Dark Side of the Sunshine

I’ve been back and forth for the past couple of days about whether to post this status or not, because I usually do not post issues this personal on social media. However, the greater context is a very public topic, and after some deliberation I’ve decided that the crucial importance of the public issue far outweighs my own privacy considerations.

First of all, I’m ok. I’ll say it again: I’m ok.

But until a couple of days ago, I did not know that I was ok. I know now that I have a skin cancer on my scalp called Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC), which is not life threatening, and which will soon be cured with a fairly simple surgical procedure that has a 99% success rate. Even for the unlucky 1% who are not cured the first time around, all they have to do is repeat the surgery, and they’re cured. Basal Cell Carcinoma is never life threatening.

But my particular type of BCC comes with a twist – one that is uncommon in white people. It’s called a Pigmented BCC, and although it, too, is not life threatening, it is distinguished by the characteristic of leaking pigment into the surrounding skin. To the naked eye, this characteristic can make it visually indistinguishable from melanoma, which is a far more dangerous and often lethal cancer. In fact, it impersonates melanoma so well that until the biopsy results came back, even my dermatologist was fooled.

Happily, the biopsy confirmed that I don’t have melanoma. The BCC (which was never life threatening) was completely excised for the biopsy, and I will soon be undergoing a procedure that will virtually ensure that it never comes back. But when my dermatologist first examined me, she was so sure that this was melanoma (“very concerned” was the code phrase she used), that she let some words slip that she should not have – words like “how much time you have left” and “death.”

For almost three days, and two sleepless nights, I lived with the foregone (but incorrect) conclusion that I had a potentially fatal disease. Melanoma (which, again, I do not have) is a big deal. It spreads like wildfire into the lymphatic system and moves into other tissues and vital organs, destroying them. When that happens, despite aggressive treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, the chances of surviving for 5 years are about 15%. Thankfully, the dermatologist was, as she said, “pleasantly surprised” to find that her suspected diagnosis had been wrong. Thankfully, I do not have melanoma. A friend keeps telling me not to say I dodged a bullet – “there was no bullet in the first place” – but I dodged a bullet.

Why am I posting all of this publicly? Because almost all of us live in a culture where sun worship is revered. Sure, we’re occasionally reminded to use sunscreen, to cover up, to seek shade. But the cultural equation of tanning with beauty, the universally promoted allure of absorbing the sun, the implicit comic heroism of sunburn, are so deeply reinforced by advertising, media, and popular culture, that most of us don’t take the reminders seriously. Go to the beach! Lie in the sun! Get a tan! Look like a movie star!

The romanticization of fun-in-the-sun in today’s culture is as strong as the romanticization of cigarettes was in the 60s, when I was growing up. Sure, our Hygiene teacher mumbled something about how smoking wasn’t good for us (before retiring to the Teachers’ Room for a quick smoke). But everything and everyone else – from Joe Camel to movies and TV and our older siblings – told us that smoking was cool. Our parents smoked. Our idols smoked. And so, sometimes, did our doctors. (In Israel, when the kids were small, we had a pediatric ENT doctor who smoked in the office between patients.)

Cigarettes, of course, are not cool. They kill – and so does the sun.

That is why I’m posting all of this. This is, in the most literal way, deadly serious: There is nothing romantic about sunbathing, nothing cool about a tan, and nothing funny about a sunburn. Reducing your exposure to the sun can save your life. Wear a hat when in the sun – even if it’s cloudy. Use sun block – the higher the SPF rating, the better, and broad-spectrum protection is critical. Wear a hat. Wear a shirt. And make your kids do it. That last part is crucial: skin damage from solar exposure is cumulative. And all of this is true regardless of your race or skin color or tone.

Be healthy. Be safe. And never, never, take life for granted.

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