I scratched at the nagging bump on my head and wondered again if I should worry. It lay smack in the middle of my part, and what might have been an insect bite should have disappeared about three months ago. It didn’t hurt surely that must be a good sign. And it didn’t seem to be getting any bigger, but then again it wasn’t shrinking either.
I rose at the nurse’s summons and followed her down the hall. The walls of my tiny exam room were adorned with nasty photos of various skin deformities.
After spending a few minutes in restless squirming, Dr. Jonathan Held entered the room and peered down on my head. “It could be a cancer,” he said matter-of-factly. “Now that I’ve scared the hell out of you, are you ready for some good news?” Turns out, I was. “If it is, then we can cut it out right now, and you can go about your life.”
At the mere mention of the “C” word, I was already anxious to get it removed. The nurse promptly plunged a syringe full of Novocain directly into my blemish. Dr. Held carved the problem right out of my scalp and cauterized the wound, introducing me to the unsettling aroma of my own scorched flesh. I tried to be upbeat, but it would have been a lot more comforting if it had been someone else’s epidermis billowing smoke.
I was told that the nodule would be tested and I would be informed of the results within a few days. He told me not to worry, that even if the lab confirmed that it was cancer, he had cut it out and that would likely be the end of it.
I left the office a little bewildered. With no alarms peeling, I assumed that my head was no longer ablaze and it was safe to drive. But, in the matter of the last few minutes, my small bump had been replaced by what I assumed was a gaping wound. And my sense of invincibility had been kicked aside by the gnawing feeling of vulnerability.
I managed to avoid telling Kim about my unfortunate adventure until later that evening as we were turning in. She bolted upright and snapped the bedside lamp back on. Kim then began to ask about a hundred questions. I think I properly answered perhaps 50. This is actually a better average than I usually muster to one of her inquisitions, but still it left her feeling a bit shortchanged. I also tried to assure her that I was going to be okay, even though I was not yet convinced of that myself.
Over the next few days, I anxiously awaited word on the lab test results. I tried to assume the best, until the moment my cell phone sang out its tune. Dr. Held’s cheery voice didn’t betray any bad news. Yet, he got right into it by telling me it was definitely cancer. To be specific, “in situ squamous cell carcinoma.”
He continued on, but my mind came to a halt at the word “carcinoma.” Sensing that he’d lost me, he came back a bit and told me that “in situ” meant it was toward the surface, and hadn’t spread. He also indicated that this form of cancer is very common. I asked him, “Didn’t we name a dollar coin after an Indian called Squamous?” With this wise-ass question, he knew I was back with him.
Dr. Held said my cancer had extended all the way to the lateral median, meaning that the cancer was present all the way to the edge of the sample. In other words, he may not have gotten it all. I would require further treatment, but it was no rush. I’m new at this, but a cancer growing on my head seemed like the kind of thing that I should make time for ASAP, and he agreed to see me that afternoon.
To avoid another “third degree,” I invited Kim to tag along for round two of Gary vs. Cancer. “Ask him any questions you like,” I allowed. She thought that this plan was a smashing idea. I guess she doesn’t much enjoy grilling old dunderhead, without getting enough answers, any more than I relish the interrogation.
The treatment was nothing more dramatic than the removal of an even larger chunk of my scalp, followed by the now familiar “using Gary’s head as an hibachi” technique for closing the wound. He sat back and told me I had just joined the hat-wearing club. Up to that point, I had always assumed that the members of this organization had to be bald or have dirty hair. But now I realized that there was another category knotheads like me! And of course I will have to splatter myself with copious amounts of sunscreen.
All women love men that are tall, dark and handsome. I’ll be the lonely guy in the corner that the girls call “Casper.”
I looked to Kim for some reinforcement that she likes me anyway, but she was deeply into 20 questions with the well-prepared dermatologist holding my skin in a specimen bottle.
Turning away from her, Dr. Held continued in his attempts to assure me that everything was going to be OK. Yet, I was feeling very low because the gouge he took out of my noggin’ felt humongous. I was certain that everyone would see and be disgusted by the obvious defect up there. And, I realized that I’d never again be able to question someone’s integrity by comparing the honesty of their claims to a “hole in my head.”
It turns out that squamous cell carcinoma is the second-most common form of skin cancer, diagnosed in more than 100,000 Americans every year. The people most at risk are fair-skinned (check), have light-colored hair (in my case dirty blond and turning gray!) and have blue, green or gray-colored eyes. Mine are mostly red these days, but my driver’s license says they’re blue.
If you work or play outside a lot, then you’re much more likely to join the hat club. That’s because the blemishes can occur anywhere, but are usually located in those areas that are routinely exposed to the sun.
No one knows how much sun is too much. In fact the Shade Foundation (founded by Curt Schilling’s wife, Shonda) states that “one in every five children will grow up to develop skin cancer.” It seems wise to limit everyone’s exposure to the sun in any practical way.
Properly chastened by this whole experience, I resolve to wear a hat and sunscreen when I’m going to be outside for awhile. Meanwhile, my vanity has me pushing my hair to adopt a new part in my head. My hairdo doesn’t want to change a decades-old practice, but I’m hoping that the new set-up will disguise the wound. So far though, I look like I was coiffed by a drunken hairdresser using a broken Flowbee.
Gary Atkinson is 51, divorced and remarried. He has four children from 26 to 8, so when all’s said ‘n done, he said, “I will have gone Trick or Treating for about 10 straight years. I’ve been living in Townsend for a year, and working at Bemis in Shirley for 22 years, active in my children’s activities, my wife’s busy shopping calendar and dodging contact with my ex.”