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Independently Speaking

Publication Date 6-22-23


Sunscreen and hats, people, sunscreen and hats.

Sometimes I’m a role model, sometimes I’m a cautionary tale.

I wish it was more of the former, but we live in an imperfect world.

Because I spent most of my life working outside, because I didn’t know sunscreen existed until the turn of the century, because all my ancestors came from places on the edge of the Arctic Circle where twelve hours of darkness a day is not uncommon, AND because I’ve been bald a long time with nothing protecting my noggin from the sun, I have a funny looking head. In addition to the scars and lumps, there are many oddly colored patches hither and yon.

Once a year, I go to a dermatologist and she pokes, prods, and then squirts some of the lumps with liquid nitrogen. I spend a week or so looking like I have an unfortunate tropical disease, and then I forget all about it until my next appointment.

This time the nice lady in the white coat poked, prodded one particular spot, and said, “Oh, we’re going to want to take a look at this right here.” She hacked out a divot and sent it off to the lab.

“Hacked” isn’t quite fair. I didn’t feel a thing and it was a very small divot.

A few days later I received the lab report saying I had skin cancer. Not the sort of news one wants to receive, but when I looked up the variety, the internet agreed that with treatment the five-year survival rate was 100%.

Looks like I acquired the best cancer you can get.

After I wrote that sentence, I leaned back in my chair and tried to think of all the people I know who weren’t that fortunate. Yes, I had an unpleasant diagnosis, but it was something I could get cut out and forget. I know so many people who would have given everything they owned, literally, for that kind of news.

I was referred to a specialist, and on an otherwise pleasant Wednesday, with the landscape shrouded by smoke from Canadian forest fires, I showed up for my Mohs surgery.

Mohs surgery is a procedure where they cut out what looks like the cancerous area, take it to the lab and check for cancer cells around the fringes. If they find some, they take a wider circle and keep repeating the process until they get a clean report.

In what I feel is my life-long tradition of making things harder than they need to be, it took four tries before things came back clean. By this time there was a sizeable hole in my scalp and some discussion about how to patch it up, with a skin graft from my chest being one of the options. That didn’t seem like fun, but no problem. Like a clever tailor letting out a pair of 20-year-old dress pants, the doctor was able to stretch 20% less skin over the same amount of skull. I was hoping I would get a face lift effect out of the day, but I still have as many wrinkles as ever.

I went home from the doctor with a pile of gauze and bandages on the top of my head that made me look EXACTLY like one of the Coneheads from Saturday Night Live.

It was not a good look. But tonight, I was able to switch to nothing more than a giant bandage and I’m feeling far less noticeable. Not to mention healthier.

Sunscreen. Sunscreen and hats people, sunscreen and hats. A medical person told me that the skin cancer you have when you’re 70 is a gift from the sun you stood in when you were 19. If anyone reading this column knows a 19-year-old, show this to them, because no one wants a noggin that looks like this.

If I can’t be a role model, at least I can be a cautionary tale.

Copyright 2023 Brent Olson


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