Commentary: Wear your sunscreen

  • Published
  • By Maj. Jared Thomas
  • 931st Air Refueling Wing

Well, it’s finally May.

Spring is here, at least off and on, and summer is knocking at the door. Boats and campers are being pulled out of storage, and the air is filled with the sound of lawnmowers and suffocating pollen. Many people are also planning their summer vacations and weekends out in the sun.

Fittingly, May is also Skin Cancer Awareness month.

About a year ago, I was at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport getting ready to start another trip at my civilian job as a first officer at a major airline. As a new guy in the operation, it’s common to not know the captain I’ll be flying with ahead of time. As you can imagine, the first five minutes in the flight deck is like a blind date with an older man you’ll be sharing conditioned air with for the next one-to-four days.

The usual first date pleasantries:

“What’s your name?”

“Where are you from?”

“How’d you get here?”

Then, I moved on and began my preflight procedure.

Out of the blue, the captain I had just met asked “Have you ever been screened for skin cancer?”

Now, this question was random, even for the most seasoned of captains. He quickly followed with, “You sit in a window at 35 thousand feet for a living… you’re high risk.”

I acknowledged his comment, but quickly returned to my duties. It wasn’t mentioned again. As the trip progressed, his question stuck with me because it made sense. You see, like most military members, especially those in the flying community, I avoid extra visits to the clinic at all costs. Relying on medical clearance to earn a paycheck makes me skittish, and at any point one incidental finding can leave me grounded. Unless I’m on death’s door, I only go to the clinic when I’m required to for my annual flight physical.

Later, during my annual appointment, the captain’s question was still in my head.

I asked for a dermatology consult. I was prepared to plead my case but instead was met with a quick “you got it.” It was actually very easy. Fast forward a few months and I was in the dermatologist’s office for a screening. It was my first visit so I didn’t know what to expect but I assumed it would involve baring all in front a strange new doctor. I was not disappointed.

As the doctor got to my face, I began hearing a couple of “hmms,” an “ahah,” and finally an “interesting.”

Well, the good news is I don’t have skin cancer, yet. The less-good news was I have “significant and widespread” Actinic Keratosis covering my entire face.

Actinic Keratosis is a form of pre-cancer characterized by rough, scaly patching on areas of skin that see a lot of sun: backs of hands, lips, ears and the face. If left untreated, it turns into skin cancer.

The “interesting” comment from the doc was that it was far worse on the right side of my face when usually, because of driving, the left side is worse. Then, I remembered what that captain said and explained as an airline first officer and military instructor pilot, I almost always sit in the right seat of the airplane. The doctor agreed that was likely the cause. About 10% of Actinic Keratosis leads to skin cancer, but almost 100% of skin cancers start out as Actinic Keratosis.

He applauded me for getting seen while I’m 40 (I’m 39 by the way…) because by the time I was 50 he’d be removing chunks of cancerous skin from my face.

I’ve since started treatments akin to a bad sunburn (ironic, I know) to remove the “bad skin” from my face so new skin can regrow. It’s not the fountain of youth but my wife is jealous.

So, here I am sharing my story.

Much like the captain whose name I don’t recall I’ll ask, “Have you ever been screened for skin cancer?”

If you sit in a window at 35,000 feet, a defender standing at the gate, a crew chief on the line, or a “Dirt Boy” in the cab of an excavator, or anyone else who is fair skinned and only has half a soul like me, tell your doctor you want to bare it all in front of a stranger…it’s literally a life changing experience.