A good friend of mine recently had surgery to remove a melanoma from his forearm. It was the second procedure on this spot because the doctor didn't get all the cancerous cells the first time. It was painful, but not surprising, since he'd had another melanoma removed from his leg last year.
What was surprising, however, was his suggestion that we hang out on the back deck. "I need some sun,'' said my friend, a handsome 50-something guy who, I swear, is ordinarily intelligent, successful and lacking in any apparent death wish.
Uh, gee, I stammered. Is that a good idea?
Why yes, he said, pointing to the big white bandage protecting the surgical site.
Defeated, I huddled in a shady corner of the deck.
A few days later, a newsletter from the Skin Cancer Foundation landed on my desk bearing this headline: "Melanoma Survivors' Surprising Habits: Tanning and Skipping Sun Safety.''
I'm not making up that bit of serendipity. Nor am I making up these facts from the foundation.
• Once you've had a melanoma, you're nine times more likely to develop another than people who never had this deadliest form of skin cancer.
• 27 percent of melanoma survivors don't use sunscreen and 15 percent don't seek shade when they're outdoors.
• Overall, nearly half the men in the United States don't use sunscreen.
• In recent decades, melanoma among men ages 18-39 has quadrupled. Men over 50 are more than twice as likely as women to get skin cancer and die from it.
• Melanoma will kill an estimated 9,480 Americans this year.
My good friend is a New Yorker. I thought Florida men might be smarter about the sun.
So I consulted Dr. Theodore Fotopoulos, a dermatologist in New Port Richey and Bayonet Point, who also is a spokesman for the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Alas, Fotopoulos too has melanoma patients who venture out into the blazing sun thinking a little bandage is all the protection they need. They proudly inform him they wear a sun visor or baseball cap on the golf course — when what they really need is a wide-brimmed hat. That and all-over sunblock with a high SPF, protective clothing and the good sense to avoid the midday sun.
He educates, implores, entreats, and still it goes on.
"They frequently see skin cancer as something they get burned off or scraped off and they'll be fine,'' the doctor said.
He confirms men are particularly vulnerable. In addition to the famous male resistance to seeking help, guys are more likely to work outdoors and less likely to use sunblock.
Fotopoulos urges his patients to check their skin monthly. Mark it on the calendar like any other important commitment. Enlist the whole family — it's never too early to teach kids about skin protection, given that sunburns early in life can lead to cancer later.
Here's a fun idea: Get your significant other to do a full scan of you in your birthday suit once a month. Return the favor.
And be thorough. "We see (melanomas) on the bottom of feet, in between toes, on the scalp,'' in addition to exposed areas. They can also crop up in places only your eye doctor, dentist — and for women, the gynecologist — can find them.
Fotopoulos agrees women are generally better about keeping tabs on these things. He'll remove a skin cancer from a man, instruct him on how to protect himself and tell him to come back in a year.
"But they don't return until another melanoma develops.''
What's going on?
Lots of things. Studies show that tanning is addictive — people crave it just like nicotine or alcohol. You might think you look healthier/sexier/thinner/younger with a tan. Or you just might not think about it at all.
"People get complacent, or they get busy with their lives,'' he said. "Men won't seek medical attention until something develops. A lot of my patients won't come in until their spouse pressures them repeatedly.''
Notice, guys, he did not use the dreaded word "nagging.'' Because it isn't.