"Did you put on some sunscreen?" From the time we were old enough to go outside by ourselves, every one of us has rolled our eyes and answered with a resigned "Awwww, Mom! Do I have to?" Of course we had to. It was a summer ritual, one of those nagging mom things that we only complied with when caught not doing so. As often as not, we got past our moms and played in the slip-n-slide all day in the blazing Georgia sun without a care in the world. Sure, we got the stinging red sunburns, maybe even shed an itchy layer of skin, but it always healed."Always" has a way of catching up to you later on in life.
Always caught up with me this year, when I noticed an odd boil on my right shoulder. Didn't think much of it, at first. I just thought it was a big pimple, until one night after a fire, I felt it underneath the straps of my airpack. It hurt. After that, I felt it, like a constant presence...it hurt under my guitar strap or a seatbeat. Even with nothing pressing on it, I still always seem to feel it. Sometimes it itched, but mostly it was just...there, like a mushroom. I still figured it was a boil or something, but it wasn't going away and it was really annoying me. My wife talked me into going to the dermatologist.
The doctor took one look at it and knew exactly what it was. "This is a tumor," she said. "I'll take it off, have it tested, but it's a very common form of skin cancer," is what she said. "We're going to have to surgically remove it." I heard "blahblahblah, TUMOR. Blahblahblah CANCER. Blahblahblah SURGERY" Big words, those. Put them in the same sentence with "I," see if you hear anything else. However, skin cancer is the most common form of diagnosed cancer in the U.S. Squamous Cell Carcinoma is the second most common form of skin cancer. Like most cancers, it's very curable in the early stages. Unlike most cancers, it's highly detectable at the early stages. The tumors are generally on the skin, so in terms of sneakiness, it's not exactly the ninja of cancers. Of the 700,000 cases a year, less than 5 percent of them result in resulted in an incurable situation. And nearly all of those were because treatment was delayed. This is good.
Last week, I had it removed. It was slightly smaller than a marble, but the also took a big slice out of the surrounding healthy tissue out of my shoulder. That's to make sure all of it's gone. I'm pretty sure it's gone. Feels like it's gone. It might be a while before I wake up in the morning without expecting my right shoulder to resemble smurf village, and I'll probably never go outside without a t-shirt and sunscreen rated at SPF 5 Million. However, other than a little scar, I'm none the worse for wear.
I will take away from this a deeper perspective of what cancer is, and how it affects people. I think about friends and family members who have fought sneakier, more aggressive forms of cancer, always courageously but with varied degrees of success. Then I look at my right shoulder, the stitched up incision that is just beginning to heal. It's over, and it was nothing. Nothing at all compared to that. And it still scared the living hell out of me. I spent a couple months with a nagging fear, and with an imperative of making this mushroom thing on my shoulder go away as soon as possible. I spent time talking to God, evaluating what was important in my life and what wasn't. I resolved to be a better husband, dad and man.
Now it's gone. Thank God. Turns out, it really wasn't that big a deal, and now I get the chance to be a better person out of it. Still, I think about all those people out there who don't get that chance, or who must fight to get one. I ask you to pray for them. If my little episode taught me anything, it was to pray.