Retirement’s Comic Relief: Preparations for summer sun are looking good

Visiting with my mother by telephone in 1974, I learned of an accident that involved my grandparents. As my 84-year-old grandfather prepared for winter standing on a ladder and shortening chains attached to the ceiling on their front porch swing, he lost his grip. The swing dropped onto my grandmother’s head as she helped, lifting from below. After the call with Mother ended, I immediately dialed my grandparent’s number to get a first-hand report.

When Granddad answered, I explained learning about what happened, then asked, “How is Grandmother doing?”

“Oh, she’ll be alright,” he said. “But, she’ll never look like much again.” I felt ill at first. But, as conversation continued, I realized his comment was only Granddad’s ever-present odd sense of humor.

The event with my grandparents occurred roughly one year before a skin cancer lesion near my own head was discovered. It wasn’t the dangerous kind of cancer. Fortunately, it was a type that could be easily remedied by freezing or removal. When interrogated by the dermatologist back then, I confessed spending considerable time in the sun as a youngster at the swimming pool – without any protection from the sun.

Because I loved swimming, Mother purchased a season pass for me at the local pool each summer. Getting me out of her hair might have also had something to do with it. She would drop me off when the pool opened at noon then pick me up at 5 p.m. six days a week all summer long. By the time school started in the fall, my brown hair was blonde and my completion so brown, I could easily be mistaken for a skinny Kodiak bear cub.

Pharmacist Benjamin Green developed the first sunscreen product in 1944 in response to soldiers stationed in World War II’s Pacific Theater experiencing severe sun burns. In my case during the ’50s and ’60s, sunburns mainly happened in early summer, then quickly diminished as the season at the pool wore on. Using sunscreen as protection from sunburn didn’t seem necessary in those days.

In the five decades since that first skin cancer, worrisome changes found in a variety of places have brought visits once or twice a year to Bismarck dermatologist Dr. William Cornatzer’s office. The total number of worrisome spots encountered during the years since the first in 1975 isn’t certain, but 250 might be a reasonable guess. Prior to the last get-together with Dr. Cornatzer, I casually shared with our adult children that I had a date to see the dermatologist in addition to a number of other events listed on our calendar.

Cornatzer inspected the two areas I asked about, then wasted no time spotting another half-dozen he didn’t like. “We’ll biopsy this one and this one,” he said, “then freeze here, here, here, here, here and here,” he added, gently poking spots scattered around my noggin with a finger.

By the time I returned to the reception room where Rita was waiting, Band-Aids and a half dozen frozen areas turning red littered my face and neck. “What happened to you? Did you get into a fight?” Rita asked.

“Yeah. You should see the other guy,” I responded.

I share all of this to encourage you and your family to use sunscreen when you venture outdoors this summer. It can be beneficial even when skies are overcast since UV rays of the sun still reach the ground. Judicious use of sun-screening products will reduce the risk of developing skin cancers that leave you looking like me when you’re old and gray – an ancient, dried up slab of Swiss cheese well past its expiration date.

From now on when our grandchildren telephone to ask how my appointment went with the dermatologist, I’ll respond, “Oh, I’ll be alright. But, I’ll probably never look like much again.”


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