Dying for tanned hides

September 10, 2008

In the examining room, I waited for the dermatologist. Framed on the wall was an information sheet about melanoma.

The doctor entered. Tall, thin, and past retirement age, he shook my hand as one would expect an ex-Marine to shake it. His eyes scanned my face. “Celtic family background,” he said. “Grew up in the South.”

A psychic, I thought, and a good one. “How do you know that?”

“Your complexion and the sun damage.”

I told him of growing up on a lake in Florida, of many days at the Atlantic coast, of many blistering sunburns.

“Take your clothes off,” he said, as if commanding a new enlistee to stand at attention. And thus began a scan of everything and everywhere. Nothing suspicious, he said, other than the misshapen mole on my back, which is what brought me to his office. My wife had pestered me for months to get the mole checked.

A basal cell carcinoma, he said, the most common and least threatening skin cancer. Lab tests confirmed his diagnosis, and he removed it at a later visit.

I asked why young women are afflicted with melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer, at a higher percentage than any other age or gender group. “Tanning salons,” he said, shaking his head.

Now, when I pass Pacific Beach Tan a few blocks from my house in Northeast Portland, I look for the customers entering and leaving: almost all are young women. They’re cooking themselves under lamps to improve their looks.

I used to cook myself in the sun to obscure the pimply ravages of adolescence. Today I’d rather have that zitty skin compared to what I’m stuck with. Not just the too-long-in the-oven look but vastly increased risk of a disease that can deliver a horrid death.

“See me every six months,” the doctor said. I wanted to salute.