I click a link to a message entitled “Skin Biopsy Results” and few words jump out at me before I can finish the page.
Basal Cell Carcinoma.
Our surgery department will contact you to schedule treatment.
There’s an innocuous looking pink bump on the side of my nose near my eye, another on my shoulder. The positive results of these two spots call into question many other areas, undoubtedly more biopsies to come. They’re not the first. They tell me it’s the most common form of cancer and it is typically highly treatable.
I suppose it doesn’t matter how common or how treatable, the word cancer sends a temporary wash of fear through my body. You cannot help but wonder where you lie within the percentages. Questions. I’ll deal with it. More questions. Don’t worry, you’ll deal with it.
I think back to a moment with my doctor.
“It’s strange that I have these on my shoulders, I’m pretty good about staying covered in the sun.”
“Honey, this didn’t happen last weekend. It’s genetics and a lifetime of sun damage. Did you burn a lot as a kid?”
“There you go. You weren’t meant for this place.”
Snip. Another piece of flesh is put into a vial.
I wasn’t meant for this place.
Surgery day. I’m informed prior to the start that growths around the nose tend to run deep and spread outward, that the surgeon cannot predict how much will have to be removed. He’ll cut, send the sample to the lab outside to be examined, and cut more until there’s no sign of cancer. They’ll be slightly more aggressive with my shoulder, simply removing a large chunk under and around the growth.
Needle pricks, numbness spreading from my nose and into my jaw. John Coltrane is on the stereo and I’m thankful I can talk jazz and art with the surgeon. I can feel his breath next to me. He’s steady. I close my eyes. The sound of metal gently tapping metal, skin cutting. The hole in my shoulder is large, almond-shaped, an inch and a half long and three-fourths of an inch wide. They tug aggressively at the sutures, pulling it shut and tying it off.
An hour and a half has passed.
It’s not that bad.
There is no pain, though I’d prefer I didn’t have to smell my cauterized skin.
They’ve taken almost a dime of skin from next to my eye. They suspect I’ll heal OK, but I can talk to a cosmetic surgeon in three weeks if I don’t like the scar. I tell them I don’t make money off my looks, that I’d rather have a scar than be opened back up. They tell me to wait and see. I walk out, heads in the waiting room following my bandaged face.
As a lover of deserts, waves, and peaks, I’m reevaluating my relationship with a suddenly dangerous sun.
“I’m usually pretty good at sun protection when I know I’m doing something, like hiking or surfing. But I can see I need to make it more of a daily habit.”
There’s a smirk on my surgeon’s face, a slight shake of his head.
“Man, going to the grocery store is too much sun for you. You need to rethink your sun exposure or we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other.”
I imagine a burka, hiding every inch of myself from the light. Hiking sandy washes wrapped in blue robes like a Berber trader. Sleeping in caves during the day, waking and walking at sundown as the sky reddens and the winds pick up.
I imagine outright abandonment of our damned star. Becoming a night runner, night hiker, night cyclist. Enjoying the feeling of cool air on bare skin without searing worry. Seeking my adventures by headlamp and streetlight. The world would be empty and quiet and I would be free.
I imagine packing up and moving my family to some cloudy, dark North where my genes might belong and where I’d never need to shield my eyes from the sun’s blinding glare again.
I imagine I must now start to choose my time of day wisely, to save my exposure for when it counts, for trips in the High Sierra instead of some noontime hike in familiar local hills.
I walk to my studio out back, to sit and write and imagine a little more.
Stopping on the path, shirtless, I squint defiantly at my enemy.
Feeling its heat on my shoulders, I hurry for cover.