Cancer Saved My Life…

Big heart

I might be one of the few people who can actually make that statement but I think it’s true.

Here’s my story.

As a youngster growing up in northern Ohio, our family had a boat that we kept on Lake Erie.

From mid-May through mid-October, we were on the water or at the beach just about every weekend.

Back in those days, we never heard about skin cancer or sun screen.

More often that not, we just played outside until we got “red” and then Mom might put some Solarcaine on our tender necks, backs and shoulders.

On occasion, I’d soak in a warm bath with baking soda mixed in the water to cool my skin.

I remember we had Coppertone lotion or oil but I think we used it to help give us a “healthy tan”.

(Remember the little dog tugging at the gal’s swim bottom revealing some untanned flesh?)

I even remember girls smearing themslves with baby oil while on the beach but I doubt there was much, if any, sun protection provided by that.

I used to think it was cool as a kid to pick flakes of skin off my shoulders after a “burn”.

Little did I know.

One time we spent the night at my Aunt Helen’s house and I woke up in a damp bed.

I feared I had “wet it” in the traditional childhood manner.

This time it was due to the sun blisters on my back and shoulders from too much time in the sun.

Now, while anyone can get skin cancer, we fair-skinned, light-colored hair types are most susceptible.

Let’s fast-forward to the early 70’s.

Risks from sun exposure are higher the further south you go so 2 years on the flight line in Selma, Alabama was not the best for this pale white boy.

The USAF also allowed us to go shirtless on the flight lines in the summer which was even worse for me.

Sun screen?

Not in those days.

Now, let’s move to the mid 90’s.

I do a radio interview with hospital officials who are conducting a free, skin-cancer screening clinic.

I’m curious, so I sign up.

Turns out to be one of the best moves I ever made.

As soon as the doctor sees my freckled back and shoulders, he says, “You got a bad sunburn when you were younger, didn’t you?”

(See my ealier comments about my “bed-wetting” incident).

I said, “Yes”.

He said,  “You should see a dermatologist”.

I did.

I’ve been seeing one ever since.

Here’s what I’ve learned about skin cancer.

It’s the most common type of cancer, with more than one million of us diagnosed with some form each year.

It’s an abnormal growth of skin cells triggered by the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

Skin cancer most-often occurs on surfaces exposed to the sun.

But not always.

The most common type is basal cell carcinoma.

Eighty percent of skin cancers are these types.

I’ve literally had dozens of these removed.

Number two on the skin cancer hit parade is squamous cell carcinoma.

Somehow I’ve dodged these.

The deadliest form of skin cancer is melanoma.

Only 2% of skin cancer are these types and I’ve had 4 removed; from my right forearm, my left elbow, my right shoulder and my left calf just below the knee.

Early diagnosis and treatment of melanomas is crucial.

They require a bit more tissue removal and stitching but I’ve been told, chicks like scars.

So, how did cancer save my life?

After my 4th melanoma treatment in about two years, my dermatologist told me, “Since cancer doesn’t play by the rules, I think you should undergo tests and exams to look internally for any other signs of cancer”.

I thought that made sense.

So, I underwent a battery of tests and scans, checking my “insides” from head to toe.

Everything came back fine.

No cancer.

But I had one more test to undergo.

A lung scan.

I had that done and the hospital called and said I was to meet with their heart surgeon, which I thought was odd since this was for the results of a lung scan.

I met the doctor and he said, “John, your lungs are fine but if I were you, I might be concerned about that aneurism on your ascending aorta”.

I thought that sounded wise.

He told me an aneurism is a weakness in the walls of an aorta and they can bulge out like an old garden hose,

He showed me right where it was and told me how big it was.

I met with another heart surgeon who said since it’s not to the size he normally repairs, we could monitor it.

But, he said it wouldn’t get better on its’ own and since I was in pretty good health, he recommended I get it repaired.

He also said, while we “have the hood up”, we’ll fix anything else we might find.

How about two blockages?

So, a double bypass and an aneurism repair which included being on a heart-lung macine for 45 minutes.

He also told me most aneurisms are discovered like mine was.

Folks go in for one proceedure and doctors just happen to find an aneurism.

I asked him, “What happens if that aneurism would burst?”

He said in all likelihood, I’d only have a few moments to live.

And that’s why I owe my life to skin cancer.

And a pretty smart dermatologist.

 

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