Having survived Stage IV Melanoma and 98 Brain Tumors, Leland Fay wants to talk about the “pink elephants” he’s encountered along the way.
Since being diagnosed with Stage IV Melanoma and being given six weeks to live back in 2012, more than a few, well-meaning friends and family have suggested that “it isn’t your fault you got cancer Leland.”
While there is no way to determine with absolute certainty, and I hope I’m open minded enough to consider other possibilities, I believe they are wrong.
Ladies and gentleman, the elephants have just entered the room. Let me begin introducing this herd of pachyderms by saying that they hail most definitely from Asia and not Africa.
One way to tell the difference between Africana & Cyclotis Maximus (African subspecies) and Indicus, Borneenis and Sumatranus (Asian subspecies) elephants is by complexion. African trunk hangers typically have dark gray or grayish brown skin while those from Asia are usually gray, tan, red or even pink toned.
People that knew me “back in the day” would have seen a variously tan, red or pink complexion (e.g. Asian subspecies). The pink skin premiered on my face sometime around sophomore year of high school. Kinda of the color of this dude:
And some or all of my friends were asking (at least to themselves),
“How is that Leland is able to maintain such a curious, daresay un-natural (not necessarily in a good way) glow when Chicago (that’s where I’m from) can go 70+ monotone days with nary a sun’s ray in sight? I mean it’s nearly February what’s up with your red face boy? Opportunities for Christmas vacations in Florida have passed and Spring Break and its attendant sunshine, bottles of baby oil, other bubbly stuff, and attendant, potentially bad life choices is still weeks away?”
When the questions arose about my rutabaga red complexion I evaded, deflected or neatly ignored them. Here I drew spiritual inspiration from Ollie North and the Iran-Contra congressional hearings happening at the time. One of Ollie’s most famous sayings, when asked challenging questions about his role in providing funds to the Nicaraguan contra rebels from profits gained by selling arms to Iran, was something along the lines of,
“Mr. Senator, I have no recollection of the events in question Mr. Senator.”
Despite my attempts at denial, I’m sure that eventually my friends figured it out. They were gracious enough not to call the elephant by name, to my rubbery face, and risk shattering a wooly mammoth sized ego. But if I listen carefully sometimes I think I can hear the throaty, thirty year old echoes reverberating out of St. Ignatius College Prep’s hallowed halls…
“I-know-I-know- he must be going to the, The, THE TANNING BBBBEEDD …”
Didn’t hear those words then, but I hear them loud and clear now. Asian elephants have some of the most powerful hearing of all land creatures but my ears were tiny, microscopic things. Who knows, maybe somebody did speak up. I didn’t hear it, and I don’t remember. Tthis would only serve as further evidence of the mastodon sized “impediments to listening” of which I am alluding to.
For the record and to the point, the “lobster look” I sported in high school was not due to sunshine; nor was my personalized global warming plan the result of dark-complected ancestry (unless Ireland, England, and Scotland are closer to the equator than we think) or some errant and freakish genetic aberration.
I hit the tanning bed man, as you suspected. You know the fat guy with the big nose I have been sneaking around with here. That Oliphant was capable of shining Spring Break up – I mean – through my window all winter long — and I invited the tanning salons into my life willingly and with near religious zeal!
During spring break of my freshman year, after “suffering” through six months of “serious acne” on my face I discovered the power of The Tan Man. Okay more like The Burn. A good, somewhat painful sizzling was hot enough I found to scorch the anchovies right off my face, and I thought a pizza-topping-free complexion was note- worthy and admirable. The tanning bed, by extension, became the obvious replacement for Spring break or Summer sun, by next fall.
Looking good was important. I mean this was the 80’s, right? Billy Crystal’s Fernando Lamas impersonation on Saturday Night Live was supposed to be good comedy, but I took it as gospel. It was truly “better to look good than to feel good.” (btw, you all look marvelous out there, from where I sit tonight). More than anything I think this was my problem.
Here, we parade out the second elephant. He comes thundering into the room.
Some equally well-meaning people might say,
“Don’t feel bad. We didn’t really understand the potential dangers of artificial tanning back then.”
Um, excuse me while I step over the amalgamation of bovine fecal matter (my new favorite phrase.)
Whether or not “we knew” as a society, I knew. I knew in the same way that I knew <fill in your favorite thing a teenager probably shouldn’t be doing> was wrong. I had many internal dialogs about it, in fact. Something along the lines of and to paraphrase,
You know Leland, this tanning stuff is probably bad for you and you might get cancer.
Right now I’m picturing the responder as an elephant, Babar-like but sinister, sitting on the corner of State and Goethe in Chi-Town, black beret tipped sideways on his wide hairless pinkish scalp, as he speaks out the side of his gaping mouth over a fistful of smoking cigarettes and wickedly sharpened tusks with a couple of gold rings (bling!) dangling off them. He was telling me how I didn’t have to worry about the consequences, at least not yet.
“…Yeah but that won’t be until you are really old – like forty or something – and you need to look good now so who cares, we’ll deal with that later, c’mon Leland everybody’s doing it. Moohoohahaha.”
Don’t be fooled by this guy. Even though I left him get to me, I know you won’t. Don’t think that we didn’t know about skin cancer in the 80’s. This was pre-internet but not pre-stupid. I don’t know how we knew, but we, I should say I, knew.
“Okay yeah,” the final elephant of this story says, “but lots of people went to tanning beds and fried their epidermal layers in the sun back then. I mean remember those ridiculous contraptions in the 80s … you know the ones made of silvery space blanket material in order to achieve maximum UV radiation? And what about the gang of leather skinned, alligator ladies who sat by the pool, 12 hours a day/7 days a week at the club? Not all of them wound up with skin cancer.”
These are arguments are silly and akin to wondering why our Nana, God rest her soul, never got lung cancer after seventy years and a trillion Marlboro’s. The reality is people who spend too much time in the sun or doing any other “at risk behaviors” are likely to suffer the consequences, eventually. My guess is if my Grandmother had smoked 70 more years eventually she would have developed lung cancer. As a friend of mine used to say, in reference to sobriety and staying out of bars,
“If ya go to a barber shop long enough chances are you are gonna get a haircut.”
There’s plenty of damning information out there. Here’s some from the first site that came up while searching on the subject (www.skincancer.org):
- Sustaining five or more sunburns in youth increases lifetime melanoma risk by 80 percent.
- The skin of teens is thought to be more vulnerable than adults’. Teens may be especially susceptible to skin cancer because their cells are dividing and changing more rapidly than those of adults. Changes or mutations to the DNA with cells can occur as a result of damaging UAV exposure.
- Indoor ultraviolet (UV) tanners are 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma than those who have never tanned indoors.
- Finally, and Nana might be smiling here, studies have shown there are more skin cancer cases due to indoor tanning than lung cancer cases due to smoking (420k cases of skin cancer /year in US; 6K of which are melanoma).
In ‘The Elephant’s Child,’ Rudyard Kipling retells the folktale about how elephants got their trunks. A young elephant, bursting with curiosity, asks,
“Excuse me, please can you tell me what the crocodile eats for dinner?”
And to make a short story shorter, the nearby croc tells her,
“Sure, I’ll tell you, come closer.”
An epic tug-of-war ensues, with the lizard pulling on the elephant’s nose, stretching his snoz into a trunk and the rest is, as you might have guessed, history.
Perhaps this elephant analogy has stretched on long enough as well. Either way, it’s out there now.
I hit the tanning bed as a teenager. I knew the risks. I did it anyway. I caused, or at least put myself at risk for, cancer and I get to face the full consequences, 98braintumors.com later.
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