The Big C

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Photo by Tom Cahill

Photo by Tom Cahill

by Louis Cahill

It doesn’t matter how many times you say it in your head, the first time you hear a doctor say the word cancer, it’s like getting kicked in the nuts.

The room is bright and cheery with yellow walls. Ironically, a wall of windows facing east floods the room with morning sun. The white paper crackles as I sit. A woman half my age asks me questions and I answer.

“No, no tobacco. Yes, several drinks a week. Yes, I’m allergic to penicillin. Yes, my father died of lung cancer.”

She turns from her keyboard, folds her hands and asks, “So, what brings you here today?” I lift my finger to my nose.

I am the most serious person you will meet when it comes to sun protection. I wear sunscreen that resembles caulk. I never fish without a buff. I often wear wide brimmed hats which don’t look remotely cool on me. I never fish in shorts or short sleeves. I wear sun gloves and SPF lip balm. I’m practically a vampire.

But between my dark glasses and the top of my buff, there’s this little spot. It’s about the size of a pencil eraser and no matter how I pull or slather or shade, I can not keep it covered. One sixteenth of a square inch on the bridge of my nose. One spot, smaller than a doctor fly, ninety-three-million miles from the sun. That’s all it took.

I’ve been poking and staring at that spot for a year, since it popped up last summer on a permit fishing trip. I didn’t get a permit. Instead I got this little flakey, red spot. I figured it would go away but it didn’t. It just hung around looking chafed and irritated, like a moody teenager. By January I figured I had skin cancer. So, why did it take me another eight months to drag my ass in to the dermatologist?

“Actinic Keratosis” The words come out of her mouth like a gong next to my head. “Pre-cancer.”

It doesn’t matter how many times you say it in your head, the first time you hear a doctor say the word cancer, it’s like getting kicked in the nuts. Thirty years later, my father’s suffering is still quite vivid in my head. It’s like a horse standing on my chest whenever I think about it. I’m not afraid of much, but I’m afraid of cancer. I’ve seen it at work.

I am lucky. These little precancerous spots are pretty common and only one in ten becomes a real problem. I caught mine in the early stages. It does mean that I’m at risk and I’ll have to be diligent but don’t worry about me. I’m going to be fine.

The doctor was great. She put me at ease quickly. She froze the spot with liquid nitrogen and told me it would scab over and peel and I would most likely be fine. Nothing to worry about.

I feel ok about it. I know that I’m going to have to be checked regularly from here out, but I was prepared for much, much worse. I stewed and fretted for a year over that little spot on my nose and for what. It cost me $40 and an hour of my time to have it blasted away.

Here’s my point.

Take it seriously. Damned seriously! I see way too many anglers taking unnecessary risks with their skin. You may be getting away with it now, but you won’t get away with it forever. Even my doctor told me I’m doing everything right, and I still got it.

Protect yourself every single time you go on the water. Wear SPF clothing, long sleeves and pants, a buff and hat. Above all wear good sunscreen. The kind with zinc in it. Wear it absolutely every time you fish. Get yourself checked regularly by a dermatologist. Don’t take chances with the sun. Life doesn’t have to be short. Stick around and fish a while.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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18 thoughts on “The Big C

  1. “Protect yourself every single time you go on the water. Wear SPF clothing, long sleeves and pants, a buff and hat. Above all wear good sunscreen. ” Wear gloves too. After the face, the most common place for skin cancer is the back of the hands. Simms, Buff, Columbia and others make good fishing gloves. Unlike sunscreen, it won’t wash off after handling a fish in the water.

  2. No argument from me! Being descended from British Isles stock, I have the fair complexion that just begs to burn. Some years ago I started seeing a dermatologist yearly (at least) and she pithily observed … “You grow things!” Something she prescribed for me was retinol A (generic name is tretinion cream 0.025%). You may know of it as an acne treatment, but she indicated that when applied regularly it has some cancer prevention characteristics. Squeeze out a pea size blob, add a couple of squirts of a good skin moisturizer and mix in the palm of your hand. Spread on your face, neck, ears, and backs of your hands (if you have enough left over).

  3. Having worked outdoors my whole life, I am a poster child for pre-cancer screening, and just like clock work I see a dermatologist once, sometimes twice a year. Some dermos take the job a little more seriously then others, and do a thorough spot check of your body. Be advised, you don’t have to have a covered up area get skin cancer. My wife had a squamous cell taken off her ankle, which is always covered. The radiologists first thought it was a melanoma, but thankfully the lesser brand, after a biopsy. The squamous was found by a podiatrist, not a dermatologist. The other problems with sun include skin damage and advanced aging, believe me, only recently have I taken that serious after looking in the mirror. Use a very good skin cream early on if you are out in the sun a lot like me. Most of the really good skin creams for men also contain 15 spf. The only drawback is the come with a higher price tag. In conclusion don’t wait until the sun bakes you to a crisp. See a dermatologist once per year esp if you work outdoors in an area like Florida. It could save your life.

  4. Great post. make people aware and dont delay! From a doctors point of view with skin cancer the sooner you get in the better. eg easier to treat. If you are susceptible good idea to have a dermatolgist give you a once over every year just like seeing your family doc or internist.

  5. Try zinc oxide on your nose. We used to wear it when surfing, growing up on Pensacola Beach. I get those little spots on my arms. They freeze some off everytime I go to the Skin Doc. It’s hell gettin old.

  6. So glad you raised this issue where it can really make a difference Louis, thank you. 2 years ago I had the exact same thing but on my left temple and ear. I came by mine honestly as well – I’m a pilot and have been exposed to the sun at altitude for almost 20 years. I too waited much longer than I should’ve, thinking it would go away, but never did. I have become religious about wearing SPF gear when fishing, but have also stepped up my game to include a daily SPF of 30+, designed to wear all the time.

    We all wanna fish longer right? Take care of yourselves boyos, so we can all fish well into the proverbial evening. Thanks again Louis.

  7. Skin cancers are the most common cancers around the USA and the world. The good thing is that you can see skin cancers coming before they become serious, so get checked. Become religious about protecting your skin from the sun. You are in control of this aspect of your health.

  8. makes me feel a lot better about sweating my ass off yesterday in long sleeves and a buff! sometimes it’s easy to slack and this was a good reminder not to.

  9. Awesome article! I work in a derm office and see the effects of sun damage every day. Skin cancer (non-melanoma & melanoma) can be easy to prevent and to treat if found early. Prevention as you mentioned , like wearing protective clothing and sunscreen and annual full skin exams by your dermatologist, are all easy. And the sun can cause wrinkles and age your skin so wear your hats and sunscreen! If you do have a skin cancer, the key is early treatmement for a higher cure rate. Great article to share first hand experience.

  10. Ah yes the big C. I’m of Irish (Celtic) stock and was born and bred in the tropics and have spent over 65 years on the water fishing.

    For the past 30 years I have been having on average 5 skin cancers (BCC) removed annually. Six years ago I had an aggressive SCC surgically removed. That is the SCC and a piece of my leg 60mm in diameter and 12mm deep removed and then a skin graft applied to cover the wound. That process took close to 6 weeks and involved 4 days in hospital and 23 visits to the doctor.

    Since then I have had Fluorouracil, in Topical form, to the face to remove the hundreds of small BCCs. During that 8 week process I had itching, burning pain, sometimes excruciating, until eventually all of the dead skin and BCCs peeled or fell off my face. The good thing was I looked 15 years younger. I have also had several small SCCs removed so I’m slowly accumulating scars on my legs varying in length from 5 to 15 stiches.

    Yes I have always worn good head gear, long sleeved shirts and long trousers when I fished or was out in the sun. With the introduction of SPF/UPF clothing I now wear UPF50 shirts all the time and that includes winter where I live in the tropics. While I’m on the water I carry a spare Buff and pair of gloves.

    I agree with everything Louis has written and yes the hardest spot for me to cover is the top of the bridge if the nose and that 10mm strip between my duckbill cap and sunglasses.

    Cheers Bruce M

  11. Like Bruce said listen to Louis you can’t over protect your self but if you don’t you most likely will have some kind of problem later when you least expect it. For me I’ve had melanoma removed twice 7 years apart most likely due to the sun exposure when I was very young when tan was thought to be healthy so my mom would cover us with baby oil in the spring so we would get tan faster.
    Now I can’t protect enough from the sun. Be careful out there!!
    Mike E.

  12. Great Post guys! Make sure you put sunscreen on the back of your ears. It’s one spot we seem to forget about. My granfather was a farmer and got skin cnacer on the back of his ears. Years of sun abuse will catch up to you!

  13. This hits home, as I’m a cancer survivor. That moment in the Doctor’s office…….yea, been there.

    Even though I live far enough North that the sun isn’t as ferocious as it is for some of you guys, I still wear long sleeved shirts, a wide brimmed hat, and I fish in the dark a lot. Can’t stand smearing goop all over myself though.

    Glad to hear you had good news for us, I hope this encourages others to get in and get checked.

  14. Great piece, thanks. One my fishing clients was wearing a neoprene nose shield a couple of years ago and gave me one. I wear one religiously now along with my buff. Not only does it give you great protection, you won’t fog up your sunglasses which is a problem with me and my buffs. It slips on and off easily, so if you’re bothered by the look you can slip it off at the dock. Not to push a particular product but this is what I use. I like the yellow/black!

  15. Amen Brother ! – I had my first (an hopefully last) go around with the Big C at age 27. I remember all the clinical language and the gut punch. That was almost 30 years ago.

    Since then I butter up, wear long sleeves and wear a buff. I wear my buff on my sun hand with I drive. I visit a good Dr. frequently to get looked over and chiseled on.

    Sometimes I look like I lost a fight with a chain saw after I come out of the Dr’s office, but protection and early detection are the key.

    Thanks for sharing!

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