Friday, May 21, 2010

Do not be an Immortal Photographer, Like I Used to Be

"Livin' on sponge cake, watching the sun bake, all of those tourists covered with oil..."  (Jimmy Buffet's "Margaritaville" plays in the waiting room, while I anxiously await the cancer doctor).

Our big fir trees were shrugging off 30-mph gusts, but a different motion caught my eye. In the approaching storm, a Bald Eagle was flying arrow-straight across the lake, racing downwind between rolling whitecaps and bruising clouds. It was hard for me to follow the eagle and pay attention to a familiar voice on the phone.

"John this is Doctor George." A second adult eagle joined the first, and now they were circling, chasing in the wind. "Sorry about the delay... computer glitch... just got your biopsy results."

Moving to a different window, I spotted a third adult eagle and then a darker sub-adult. Everything suddenly made sense. A wandering eagle had ended up in a place where it didn't belong. The resident pair of nesting eagles was chasing off the trespassing bird, and the sub-adult got caught up in the melee.

"Unfortunately," the doctor hesitated, "it's melanoma." All four eagles disappeared from my view.

I quietly repeated the "m" word, and Tracy -- who knew I was talking to my doctor, and who was parsing my every syllable -- shot me a look. It's the kind of silent communication that happens a lot between two people who have been together almost 15 years. Her look lasted less than a second, but it said a lot.

It started with, "Oh no!"

As in, "Oh no! You haven't finished building our house yet, buster!" I imagined her thinking. "And you have a 17-year-old cat who needs pills twice a day," she continued, "and one old arthritic dog who needs to be lifted in and out of the car, plus the other dog who waits by the door whenever you're out shooting all night. Besides," she concluded, "I'm too tired from training you to start working on a new husband." Then her normal, sweet facial expression returned.

Maybe my diagnosis caught her off guard, but I've been expecting this call for 30 years. Ever since skin cancer fired a warning shot across my brow.

John flying too close to the sun...In my early teen years -- in sunny Florida -- I fell in love with two things, photography and water skiing. (Actually three, if you include every dark-haired girl in my school.)  With camera in tow, I hit the lake every chance I got. By this, I mean whenever I could convince my best buddy Jimmy (whose parents owned a boat) that I would pay him back for half the gas and outboard motor oil, just as soon as I got some more money. I promise. Jimmy was a soft-hearted soul. (Sorry Jimmy. With interest, I think I still owe you about a thousand dollars.)

Over time, my cameras and my skis -- and my teenage immortality -- silently contributed to one sunburn after another. Like Icarus, I was flying too close to the sun, and there would be a price to pay.

By the time I turned 19, a nurse friend forced me to see her doctor friend, and he promptly carved a chunk out of the top of my right ear. Basal cell carcinoma, a non-spreading type of skin cancer. It seemed like a small price to pay for my sunny stupidity, but it was really a warning of worse things to come.

I eventually escaped from Florida, landing in Montana with a pile of camera gear -- and piles of coats, hats and long-sleeved shirts. So far so good. But newspaper photographers take most of their pictures when it's like, you know, daytime. Though less frequent, I still burned from time to time.

Long sleeves? Check. Hat? Check. Sun screen??During the Montana summers, I tried to keep covered up and move from shade to shade, avoiding the mid-day sun. I used sunscreen when necessary, but prefered cover to chemicals. But you know how life goes. Some years I forgot to get in to see the doctor. And some days I sat in the sun with my camera all afternoon, forgetting to wear long sleeves or pack sunscreen.

Unfortunately, damage to your skin is cumulative. Let's say in life's lottery you draw the number, 100. So if you had 95 sunny days of youthful indiscretion, then for the rest of your adult photographer life you only get five more days of skin damage before you start developing skin cancers. Kinda' sucks for us freckled folks --- we drew all of the low numbers.

The vast majority of skin cancers are the superficial, non-spreading types, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. They're fairly easy to remove, and they don't come back. But they are good forecasters of storm clouds, and you might be flying head-long to some place you don't want to be.

That bad place is melanoma, the potentially fatal type of skin cancer.

Over the years, I've stumbled into a few encounters with wild wolves, lions and grizzly bears. My pulse shot up and adrenalin kicked in, of course, but I didn't feel anything that I could define as fear, because animal behavior is predictable to some degree. But for the last 30 years, I have lived in constant fear of melanoma. It's very treatable when caught early on -- as I did -- but it has a dreadful, unpredictable behavior. Cut it out, and it just might return anyway. Or one or two malignant cells just might float off in your bloodstream, transferring the cancer to lymph nodes, brain, kidney. Bad places.

So if you are a fair-skinned photographer, don't be foolish like me. And if you're not a photographer, take my advice anyway. Forget about tanning. Hold a crucifix in one hand and a garlic braid in the other, every time you pass a tanning salon.

And, do self-checks at home. If available, a little mutual preening is a good pair-bonding experience. My melanoma appeared on the back of my neck, just beyond where I could see in a mirror. Tracy discovered it, and I was soon sitting on a cold metal table, reading a very old magazine and wearing a funny little gown. (How on earth do they expect you to tie a knot behind your back, anyway?)

Also, get checked over on a regular basis by a doctor -- especially if you are fair-haired, fair-skinned, or if you sunburned as a child. Guilty on all three accounts. I've been going to my dermatologist once a year, but now it looks like that will turn into once every three months.

My doc isn't exactly starving -- his wife even has one of my canvas photos hanging on their living room wall. But there are lots of other places besides the doctor's office where I'd rather spend my money. For example, I've long wanted one of these SPF 50 sun protection hats, but I could never justify a lousy 20 bucks for yet another photo accessory. Maybe something like this would fit in your camera bag? It could be a bargain, considering that my last skin cancer bill was a tad over $800.

Now that I've landed in this storm, I can't afford any more foolish behavior under the sun. The doc called me with test results this afternoon, and he'll cut a chunk out of my neck in the morning. But tomorrow's weather forecast calls for just a 30% chance of scattered storms.

I like my odds.

Oh, how I loved that trick ski!UPDATE: I survived the procedure this morning, but I feel like an extra in a bad vampire movie. While laying face-down on the operating table, I had a captive audience with the doctor and nurse. So I tried selling them on some nice artwork for the office walls. I'd give that effort a 50% chance of success. But the doc told me that, because we caught the melanoma early, I've got a 95% chance of surviving the next five years. But of course, he doesn't know about some of my other foolish behaviors...

This Friday, May 28th, just happens to be national "Don't Fry Day." For more information on that, and on skin cancers, see the Skin Cancer Prevention website.

More: flying  (water skiing) like a drunk duck video here.
Cameras, trick skis and girlsAhh, life was good back when I was immortal.

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