Arm-wrestling with the Grim Reaper – a dark story

Roger Rabbits
with Jim Bunny

We forego the usual diet of flannel, fluff and blarney to share an up-close and personal account of dancing and dicing with the UVs.  

I win Lotto every six months. Not a multi-million dollar Powerball First Division. Actually better than that. The Lotto of life. I win another six months on this planet. I’m not sure how long my winning streak will last. No-one can guarantee, but I’m giving myself the best shot. 

Because after a couple of nasty skirmishes with skin cancer, I now have a full body check every six months.

After 70-plus years baking in the sun, those insidious cells are constantly lurking, constantly conspiring to add me to New Zealand’s grim tally of 300 skin cancer deaths each year. And it’s my own fault.

As a young man I would lather myself in coconut oil and fry in the sun. I wanted to be buffed and tanned. Instead I was often seared fire-engine red. My nose was always peeling, people joked about ‘snoz’ and ‘Rudolph’. And it wasn’t uncommon for me to have sheets of damaged skin, literally peeling from my shoulders or back during summer. I didn’t know any better.

Grim Reaper recruiting

But my children do. Both hovering around 30, they have never been sunburned. Not so much as even turned pink. They were baptised with SPF50. They were slip, slop, slapping before they could say ‘sunscreen’. Oh, the wisdom of youth.

Skin cancer is bit gender and age fussy – men are twice as likely as women to die from melanoma, and 70 per cent of melanoma cases occur in males aged 50-plus. Great! I tick both boxes.

Every six months my anxiety levels soar as I go for my skin check. I know I’m playing in a corner of the paddock the Grim Reaper does his recruiting. 

My GP, a very thorough but funny man, who has a specialist interest in skin cancer, gets out his dermatoscope I think it’s called – a hand-held device that allows him to see much better than with the unaided eye. It helps him assess and triage skin lesions, including skin cancers, such as a malevolent melanoma, which, left unchecked, could have clobbered me.

‘Uh-huh’ and ‘mmm’

For half an hour he pores over every square centimetre of my being with that dermatoscope screwed into his eye socket. The procedure comes with a full repertoire of sound effects as he goes from lesion to lesion, a word I have come to despise. Just as I have learned to love ‘benign’.

 The ‘uh-huh’ – it’s an all clear. And there’s a distinctive ‘mmm’ – not so re-assuring. There’s his repertoire of breathing sounds – the rales and wheezes. They tell you nothing. Then he will refocus he dermatoscope back on a lesion you thought had been ticked off. Another ‘mmm’ or perhaps ‘I might consult on that one’. You always think the worst. Have those iniquitous and hostile cells breached the defences? Will another chunk of my being have to be excised?

So another biopsy, another few days of brooding as you await the results.

Then I win Lotto of Life again. “All clear, all good.” At least until next time.

But it wasn’t always like that. Because when I removed my shirt for the first full body scan, the doctor frowned and delivered a sucker-punch. “That’s got to come off.” It was a menacing mark buried in festoons of chest hair. It was out of my eyeline, could have been there forever.

The ABCDE of survival

It all checked with ABCDE rule of melanoma. ‘A’ for Asymmetry – one half of the mark was unlike the other half. ‘B’ for Border – the mark had an irregular border. ‘C’ for Colour – varying colours. ‘D’ for Diameter – bigger than 6mm and ‘E’ for Evolving – it was changing in shape, size and colour.

It all added up – I was host to a melanoma, which kills 300 Kiwis a year. The upside is I now have a 10cm scar on my chest, a memorial to the folly of my youth. And four years later I’m still alive to tell you about it.

But SC hadn’t finished its evil work – I also have an ugly scar on one shin where another lesion was surgically removed. Then just a month ago the dermatoscope found a ‘suspicious’ mark, spot, lesion lurking in my beard. They scraped off a portion of my face for a biopsy before I won the Lotto of life yet again. How often can I continue winning?

I’m just grateful our kids learned sunsmart principles before their ABC – avoid direct sunlight during peak UV radiation levels, long sleeves, wide brimmed or flapped hats, sunglasses and sunscreen 20 minutes before going outside, and reapplied 10 to 20 minutes after going outside. That’s all been said a thousand times, but it’s worth reprising, to save someone else from their silliness.

Enjoy your summer – but don’t let it kill you.

 

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