Thursday, April 26, 2012

Dear MTV

Dear MTV,

It’s been a while since I’ve spent a lot of time with you.  I’ll be turning 50 this year, so I’m hardly in your intended demographic.  But I’m definitely part of the MTV generation as I tuned in during your infant years.

I still have a crush on Martha Quinn, recall the debut of the Thriller video, remember when Adam Sandler was an extra feature on “Remote Control,” and cherish the memory of watching Live Aid.   You were a part of my daily life back then and I’m sure you’re still part of millions of lives today.  That’s why I’m back for this chat.

Your network has a direct impact on pop culture and influences many young lives.  Your programming has changed, but I know that today’s shows have as much punch as those from my college days.  Many of the shows now are reality based…some more serious than others.  I believe one of your most successful shows is “Jersey Shore.”

Frankly, that show isn’t really to my tastes, but I know of many people who enjoy it.  I can appreciate that while the people on that show are real, there escapades are cartoonish, thus the entertainment factor.  And yet, even in the ridiculous scenarios in which these young adults participate, what they do has some influence on your audience.  Whether it’s their fashion, their partying life, their language, or their tendency to get into trouble, there are young viewers who see the Jersey Shore cast as role models and copy their actions.  I know that I copied the styles seen on MTV from the 80’s (sometimes regrettably so).  There is one Jersey Shore “tradition” however towards which I think MTV should post disclaimers.  That involves the cast’s seemingly addictive behavior towards tanning.

Many states across the country are adopting tanning bed bans for minors.  California led the way and others are following close behind.  The main reason is that use of tanning beds significantly increases one’s chance of being diagnosed with melanoma.  Melanoma is not “just skin cancer,” it’s one of the most aggressive and invasive cancers there is.  One person every hour dies from this disease.  And what may be shocking to you is that melanoma is the most common form of cancer for young adults 25-29 years old and the second most common form of cancer for young people 15-29 years old.  This is EXACTLY your demographic!

I’m not asking for you to cancel “Jersey Shore” or even censor the show.  What I’d like to see is the occasional public service announcement regarding sun safety.  You were responsible for encouraging America’s youthful population to “Rock the Vote” back in the ‘80’s…I would love to see you spearhead a similar campaign to protect one’s skin.

Please Google “Dear 16 Year Old Me” and you’ll see the benchmark of melanoma PSAs.  I wouldn’t expect you to churn out anything as long as this one, but just a simple yet hip notice that sun safety should be taken seriously.  I know far too many younger people that have suffered greatly from melanoma…all you have to do is check the blog-o-sphere.  I’m sure one of them would be happy to share her story.

As for Jersey Shore, I hope it continues to be a big ratings hit for you.  Eventually, you’ll come up with another new show to be the next big thing, and the Jersey Shore cast will begin to fade away.  I can only hope that their tans would fade a bit first.

Black is the New Pink

Making Mistakes and Learning

A couple weeks ago I had a garage sale.  In my family, we PLAN such an event and our lives for two solid weeks lead to a single Saturday morning where we lay out unwanted treasures for others to barter and buy.  However, sometimes Mother Nature tries to throw a curve ball our way. 

Such was the case recently when, in the middle of wonderfully mild pre-spring days in the 70’s, she tosses in this one particular morning where the temperature was 35 degrees.  Undaunted, we pulled out the space heater (and put a “Not for sale” sign upon it) and held the sale as planned.  Of course, I couldn’t simply sit down the entire time.  I often found myself sipping coffee and negotiating the price of Barbie Dolls and faded prints from Kirkland’s while standing on the driveway.  In the chill of the morning, the morning sun felt very nice.

After the sale was over, we counted the money and shoved the remaining items into the attic for a future sale.  The heater was put away, the coffee pot cleaned, and I freshened up to face the day.  That’s when I felt it.  As I rubbed the comb through my hair, I felt the sensitivity on my scalp.  I’d become sun burnt.

The day had started off cloudy and I didn’t even think to wear my hat.  Actually, I’m not a causal hat-wearing person.  I typically wear them when I golf or know that I’ll be out in the sun for an extended time.  I guess that’s the thing…there are times that you don’t plan for.  I didn’t “plan” to be in the sun for a couple of chilly hours.  But I was.

Ironically, a co-worker of mine came up to me the following Monday morning and admitted that she had been “bad.”  She knows my melanoma awareness mission and stated that she and her husband had made plans for the weekend, but was diverted and found themselves outdoors more than expected.  As a result, she had a slight pinkish tone on her neck and shoulders.

Yesterday, I read “Pretty in Pale” and saw that Katie had also recently “sinned.”  We all had been sun-kissed and felt bad about it.

And that’s good.

There are so many people out there that don’t feel bad about it.  Many even feel good about it…loving “the burn” and looking forward to the tanner tone after the skin peels away.  They don’t feel guilty because they’re not aware or educated about sun safety.  They’re not aware that their ignorance could lead to far greater problems.

We’re all going to make mistake.  I suppose the lesson that our collective experience can teach is to be better prepared the next time.  Make putting on sunscreen a habitual thing.  Wear a hat on all days and create a new “look” for yourself as you experiment with various “hat looks.”  And by all means, realize that mistakes happen and it’s okay as long as it’s not repeated and ignored.  Feeling guilty about a sun burn is a good sign that we’re aware.  Now it’s time we start letting other folks realize their mistakes.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Popular Mechanics of Sun Exposure

While it’s interesting to see which key word searches led people to my blog, it’s equally interesting to see where else those same words lead me.  Today I followed the key words “sunburn time chart.”  There were a few sites regarding the UV Index, but one site in particular seemed like the obvious choice for all things sunburn related.

Popular Mechanics.

The article is called “Anatomy of a Sunburn: A Timeline ofDermatological Destruction.  It breaks down the details of the sunburning process within the skin in fairly layman terms.  Feel free to read the article yourself, but here’s a summary of the more interesting points.

Some of the warmth you feel as you step into the sun is literally the absorption and conversion of UV rays to heat by the melanin.

As you’re exposed to the sunlight and UV rays, the melanin goes on the defensive and spreads itself around to cover the cell nuclei where the DNA resides.  But for lighter skin folks, there’s simply not enough melanin to go around. (Note…darker skin people can have gaps in their melanin coverage as well, so they also need sunscreen).

When there’s no melanin, the UVB rays sneak in and cause INSTANT damage to the DNA cells.  As one spokesperson from the Skin Cancer Foundation stated, “the nice spiral staircase (of DNA) is knocked off-kilter.”

As the DNA gets damaged, the blood vessels dilate in the dermis (the layer below the epidermis) to nourish the outer layer of skin.  Meanwhile, the melanocytes that are located in the basal layer of the epidermis are working overtime to develop more pigment for protection.  Well, not really overtime because it takes anywhere from one day to three days for these pigments to deploy (explaining why skin “tans” after the burn).

So essentially, the tan is a sign that the body is trying to repair damaged skin and DNA…or in other words, a tan is a sign of bodily harm…NOT a “good” thing at all.

As one roasts longer in the sun, the DNA damage gets more extensive and deeper.  Cells on the outer layer (epidermis) are self-programmed to die and peel away.  But those cells deeper in the skin cannot shed or peel.  Enzymes can repair most of the DNA damage, but the occasional spot gets missed and leads to mutations.  This is how basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are formed.

In extreme sunburning, second degree burns can result.  These burns are the same as if you stuck your hand on a hot iron…it is heat and seared flesh.  Blisters form and separate the dermis from the epidermis.  Such blisters are a risk factor for developing melanoma.  (Note that this is not the only cause of melanoma, just the only one mentioned in the article).

Eventually keratinocyte cells are created in the basal layer and migrate to the outer surface.  This in turn causes the attractive massive peeling process.  And in many foolish cases, the process is repeated every season if not more often.

I found that understanding the DNA damage and the body's attempt to repair itself fascinating.  It only stands to reason that if one subjects himself to such a cycle over and over, serious, cancerous damage could result.

If you take nothing else away from this posting or the related article, remember the one line. 

Though suntans are seen as attractive, actually they are signs of bodily harm!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Encounter of the Tanner Kind

Not my kitchen
I knew the day would come.  I’ve read many blogs and accounts where people associated with the melanoma cause have had encounters with people hell-bent on visiting tanning salons.  For the most part, folks generally bite their tongue so as not to seem intrusive, although some do mention the dangers.  Today, I had my first such discussion.

I noticed that one of my co-workers (I’ll call her “E”) was increasingly matching the shade of my maple kitchen cabinets.  Another, much more aware colleague pointed out that the first gal was known to use tanning beds.  I pondered if I should say anything or just remain quiet.  I chose to speak.

Later in the afternoon, I approached E under the guise of discussing a new purchase requisition policy.  After the professional chit-chat, I commented that she must be spending some quality time outdoors.  She raised her thumb and said, “I love a tan!”

“You’re not going to a tanning bed are you?” I asked.  I got a sheepish grin and nod in response.  I merely grimaced as if I'd just tasted a bad apple.

E chimed in, “Well, I use the spray tan as well.”

“But you still use the tanning bed?”

“Yes, but I’ve been tanning for 30 years and I…..”

I interrupted with, “Have you been to a dermatologist?”

“Well, like I was saying, I’ve been tanning for 30 years and I haven’t….”

“Have you been to a dermatologist within that time?”



“Do me a favor E, if you insist on tanning, go see a dermatologist.  Will you do that?”

She agreed that she would, but with the same conviction that my son uses when he says he’ll stop playing the video game “in a minute.”

I didn’t preach about the dangers of tanning and, despite her advanced age, the damage she’s doing to her skin and health.  I knew that she wasn’t going to hear it.  But I decided to ask about the dermatologist.  Perhaps her admission to not having seen a doctor put a little bug in her brain.  Perhaps one day, she’ll decide maybe she should see a dermatologist.  And hopefully, she’ll confidently walk up to me afterwards and say, “See?  I saw the doctor and he gave me a clean bill of health!”


Thursday, April 5, 2012

My Little Follow-Up Appointment

As I’ve written before, I visited the Skin Cancer Foundation’s Road to Healthy Skin Tour kick-off in Raleigh a few weeks ago. (Note…they have GOT to shorten their name!)  After talking with the folks associated with the tour, I went through the free screening.  While the mobile clinic was quite comfortable, it wasn’t as accommodating as a doctor’s office.  However,  Dr. Trakimas did a very thorough job checking me from head to toe.  For the most part everything looked fine, but she found one spot on the back of my right thigh.  It was at a location that was impossible for me to see and even a tad difficult while using a hand mirror.  While Dr. T. thought it was most likely benign, she suggested that I get it shaved and sent to pathology to be on the safe side.  I made an appointment to see her the next week.

I cancelled.

But (before you scream at me)…I scheduled an appointment with my own dermatologist.  I figured having a new set of eyes find suspicious spots on me was a good thing, but before being cut, I’d best get a second opinion, or at least consult with the dermatologist who knows my history best.  When I called to make the appointment, I expected to wait a few weeks.  I was surprised to be scheduled for 7:00AM the next morning!

I felt a little foolish because that the spot really looked like nothing at all.  Yes, it did open my eyes that there are areas on my body that I don’t regularly check, but from the odd mirrored angle, this really looked like nothing at all.  What caused Dr. T to take note was that it appeared different than the surrounding moles. 

So my doc, Dr. J walks in and I explain the situation.  He seemed a bit surprised that I had another screening since I had seen him only 4 months prior, but understood when I explained the circumstances.  I lied down on the table with pants off so that he could get a good look at the spot.  He agreed that it did look different than the others and was worth a closer look.  He suspected it was a “regressing mole”…basically a mole that’s in the process of disappearing.  The mole itself didn’t appear dangerous at all, but the fact that it was changing was the red flag.  (The “E” for Evolving in the ABCDE rule).

Within minutes, I felt that bee-sting of local anesthetic and then the numb tug as he sliced a piece of my flesh.  It was over just before the small talk was about to get real boring.  After redressing, I was handed the “how to care for your intentional skin scrape” paper and told I’d be given a call within a week.

The only bad part about the whole experience was that the cut was right where my leg sits against the edge of the chair at work, so I had a constant itching for two days.  Otherwise, this was not a difficult experience at all.

As for the results?  Negative.  It wasn’t classified a dysplastic nevi…just as a suspicious mole that was fully removed.  I was advised to contact them if any pigmentation returns…after the spot heals of course.

I share this only to let people without melanoma know that it’s not that hard or scary to get checked.  Having an annual screening is important…and if a freebie comes along, it never hurts to have it done again.  Should a suspicious spot be found on you, the process of getting it cut and checked is not bad at all.  My spot turned out to be nothing and the peace of mind was definitely worth the “bee sting” and itching. 

How important is it to get checked?  Three people that participated in that one-day event were found to have spots suspected to be melanoma!  That’s three lives that may be saved from this simple step.  Thank you Dr. T for volunteering and potentially saving lives…and thank you Dr. J for taking good care of my skin.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"They Never Told Us Anything!"

I read string of FB comments about a friend of a friend who commented that they were too pale and needed to tan for the summer.  This person also stated that her mom “has melanoma real bad” but she has to be tan to go to a wedding.  The initial poster on FB asked what others would have said in response.  Some commented that perhaps the daughter (or even the mother) simply didn’t understand the cause and real details of melanoma.  A few days ago, I would have thought it unbelievable that someone with melanoma wouldn’t understand the dangers.  But now I can completely relate.

I talked with my sister-in-law the other day…Jeff’s wife.  We hadn’t talked in a long while, and even then our conversations were mostly emotional venting about my brother’s passing.  His death has been hard on all of us, but particularly hard on his wife.  Anyhow, our conversation this past weekend was a little bit more normal and chit-chatty.  Since we both seemed stronger to tackle a deeper discussion, I asked her a little about Jeff’s initial melanoma diagnosis in 2004.

My family isn’t the best at sharing personal or “bad” news.  And my worst personal flaw is maintaining close contact with anyone.  So the information I had about Jeff’s melanoma diagnosis in 2004 is sketchy at best.  All I recall is that he said he, “had melanoma on his back and they were going to cut it out.”  Later on, he mentioned that the surgery went well…”it was over before I realized it.”  That was pretty much all I knew about it.  With such info, I pretty much figured melanoma could “just be cut out.  Knowing what I know now, I asked my sister-in-law exactly what the diagnosis was back then.  Was he Stage 1?  Stage 2?  What other procedures were done?  The answer stunned me.

They were told he had malignant melanoma, but no stage was ever mentioned.  In fact, she never used the word “oncologist” at all.  She stated that a plastic surgeon performed the removal and the melanoma as pronounced fully removed.  Case closed.  Jeff was to visit the dermatologist every 6 months and that was it.  No scans.  No MRIs.  Nothing.

When the melanoma came back (with apparently no resistance at all) in 2010, it appeared on his face.  A “chemo cream” was prescribed and that was that.  Of course, in August 2010, it was discovered to be riddled in his brain and lungs.

My sister-in-law expressed anger.  “They never told us anything!  We had no idea that melanoma could spread to other organs!  Jeff was smart enough to now not to tan and was very careful with the sun, but we were never told to do any follow-up procedures!  She went on to tell me that when they visited MD Anderson, Dr. Hwu expressed total shock at the lack of common protocol followed.  

Based on what my sis-in-law shared, they just didn’t know.  And this scenario reminds me of another blog I read recently which discussed the difference between awareness and education.  Jeff and his wife were “aware” of melanoma, but they weren’t properly educated about it.

Let this serve as a reminder…to you and to the friend of a friend…that melanoma is a killer and it’s so much more than skin cancer.  Making people aware is important…making them understand is critical.