This post is for those of you who conduct fieldwork and spend lots of time outdoors--as well as those who like to bask in the sun--by the pool, ocean, or backyard (hopefully, no one is foolish enough to go to tanning salons).
On Wednesday, I had my third basal cell carcinoma removed--this one from my upper lip (technically, the philtrum-that area between the nose and the pigmented border of the mouth). The previous ones were on my forehead and hand.
These are slow-growing lesions that are readily cured with surgery. I've also had dozens of pre-cancerous lesions burned off with liquid nitrogen.
I'm fair-skinned--freckles, auburn hair and therefore more vulnerable than most to skin cancer. Growing up, I avoided the sun due to my sensitivity. I could be burned to a crisp in 30 minutes at mid-day in mid-summer without any skin protection. I can thank my father for my skin type. My mother and her mother both had very dark skin that tanned readily. During family outings to the beach, they were lying all day in their swimsuits in the direct sun, while my father and I were usually huddled in the shade somewhere.
Although I now always use a total sunblock and wear protective clothing while outdoors, I did slip up on occasion when I was younger. I can recall a few times that I managed to get a moderate to severe sunburn--especially in the days before good sunscreens. However, that was enough, apparently, to set the stage for later skin cancers--little time-bombs that would pop up decades later.
This lesion was very innocuous-- a scaly patch (about this size: o) just below my nose that would not go away. Most people would have ignored it until it became an ulcerated crater. However, having experienced other such tiny lesions that turned out to be cancerous, I suspected it was a problem. The tip-off was that it bothered me--I was always aware of it even though it was almost invisible (even when I pointed it out to people, they couldn't see it).
So, I made an appointment with my dermatologist. I had several other spots that I wanted checked--mostly on the backs of my hands. He glanced at those and said, "We'll burn them off." Then I pointed to my lip. He took a close look through a magnifying glass and said, "Biopsy". The nurse shot my lip up with lidocaine, and the doctor shaved off the suspect patch. I got the call a few days later--basal cell carcinoma. Please make an appointment to have the area surgically excised at your earliest convenience, which turned out to be the day before Thanksgiving.
Most people would be shocked at how much tissue is taken in the procedure. However, it's necessary to get a good margin of healthy tissue to ensure that there is no recurrence (which you definitely want to avoid). For my lesion, the elliptical incision was 1.4 cm in length and about 0.5 cm wide at the center, running vertically between nose and lip margin. The surgery was done under local anesthetic, and the incision closed with about six stitches. I was in and out of the doctor's office in 30 minutes.
Later that day, I looked like I had been in a fist fight and gotten a fat lip. I left the dermatologist's office thinking of good stories to make up about my appearance..."If you think this is bad, you should see the other guy...". Ironically, the evening of the surgery, Avatar was showing on cable. I was amused at the character in the movie (the brutal Colonel Quaritch) who had chosen not to have plastic surgery to repair the impressive scars on his head, instead saying, "I kinda like it. Reminds me every day what's out there [referring to Pandora's jungle]." Hmm. He has a point there.
The entire scene is a classic set-up between the hero (Sully) and antagonist (Quaritch). Sully's character has also suffered a major war wound, which has unfortunately left him paralyzed from the waist down and with pitifully-atrophied legs. Definitely not a macho look.
At the end of their initial meeting, Quaritch magnanimously assures Sully that he will make sure he "gets his legs back...his real legs", if he helps Quaritch subdue the indigenous people of Pandora.
It's interesting how he disparages the avatar "drivers" while strutting around in an "Ampsuit", a heavily armored robot suit that mechanically increases the driver's size, strength, and firepower. Quaritch also disparages the scientific program, "The avatar program is a joke -- buncha limpdick scientists." Quaritch especially despises the lead scientist, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who runs the avatar program and who is unafraid to confront Quaritch and his greedy corporate employer (shades of Ripley!).
If you read my earlier posts on stereotypes of female scientists, you'll recognize that Augustine is a cross between the "male woman scientist" and "the lonely heroine". The movie amusingly tries to portray how devoted Augustine is in a scene in which she is dying (from a gunshot wound inflicted by Quaritch) and is being carried by Jake Sully's avatar to a place sacred to the Na'vi (and usually off limits to scientists). Augustine, upon being told where she is, says wistfully, "I should take some samples." Now that's dedication....
The whole movie is, of course, an (adolescent) male fantasy....a paraplegic (i.e., powerless) guy gets a new and much better body, wins the girl, is accepted into a new society, beats up a lot of "bad guys" (especially his main adversary, although technically it is his Na'vi girlfriend who finally nails Quaritch), and eventually becomes leader of a new world...and during it all gets to fly around on a colorful dragon steed. How much better can a guy's life get?
Another famous "scar scene" is in the movie "Jaws" when Quint (Robert Shaw) and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) compare their "war wounds". In this classic scene, the two protagonists go through a male bonding ritual during a drinking interlude on their shark-hunting trip. Who's got the most impressive scar? Hooper shows his scar from an encounter with a thresher shark. Quint shows his wound from a bull shark. Chief Brody, who's feeling left out, surreptitiously looks down at his appendectomy scar....
The scene concludes with Quint telling about his experience on the USS Indianapolis:
"Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin' back from the island of Tinian to Leyte... just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. 13-footer....."
Quint is the clear winner in that contest.
If I were a guy, I suppose I would be thinking up a good story about how I got my scar.
- Bar fight--got a broken bottle right in the mouth. Ouch!
- Fishing buddy snagged me in the mouth. Double-ouch!
- Terrorist bombing...a piece of shrapnel hit me.
- My pet python tried to swallow me.
- Hang-gliding in the Andes and was attacked by a condor.
But being a woman, I'm thinking that scars are not so great for the feminine image. However, I usually don't scar badly, so I'm hoping this one will fade quickly--as the others have done. If not...well, I may have to use one of the above stories. I'm leaning toward the condor attack.....
Photo Credits: NASA (image of the sun), Twentieth Century Fox (modified still image from Avatar), Universal Studios (modified still image from Jaws)