The elephants in the room are under my skin

Since being diagnosed with Stage IV Melanoma in 2012 more than a few, well-meaning friends and family have suggested that “it isn’t your fault you got cancer.”

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.

Okay, ladies and gentleman, the elephants have entered the room. Let me begin introducing this herd of pachyderms by saying that I believe they are from Asia and not Africa.

One way to tell the difference between Africana & Cyclotis Maximus (African subspecies) and Indicus, Borneenis and Sumatranus (Asian subspecies) is by complexion.  African elephants are typically dark gray or grayish brown while those from Asia are gray, tan, red or even pink.

Anyone that knew me “back in the day” would have seen a variously tan, red or pink complexion (e.g. Asian subspecies), premiering on my skin sometime around my sophomore year of high school.

pink elephant

And some or all of you asked,

“How is that you are able to maintain such a curious, daresay un-natural (not necessarily in a good way) glow when Chicago 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 potentially bad life choices is still weeks away?”

When the questions arose about my rutabaga complexion I evaded, deflected or ignored, drawing spiritual inspiration from Ollie North and the Iran-Contra congressional hearings,

“Mr. Senator, I have no recollection of the events in question Mr. Senator.”

And not that anyone – least of all my friends – would have whispered behind my back, but I think, if I listen carefully, I can hear faint, 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 TAN…

But you were gracious enough not to call the elephant by name, to my face, and risk shattering the wooly mammoth sized ego.

Please don’t feel bad or take that last statement the wrong way.  That was neither meant to be a slight or accusation. It’s straight fact, at least from where I sit.  I had a nasty, near fatal as it turns out, case of ME and I wouldn’t have listened to you regardless.

Who knows maybe somebody did speak up, I didn’t hear it, and I don’t remember…this would only serve as further evidence of the mastodon sized “impediments to listening” of which I am speaking.

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 alluding to here, capable of shining Spring Break up – I mean – through my window all winter long…and I invited him/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; 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 conclusion next fall.

I mean this was the 80s 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).

Here, we parade out the second elephant.

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, black beret tipped sideways on his wide hairless scalp, as he speaks out the side of his gaping mouth over a fistful of smoking cigarettes and wickedly sharpened tusks,

…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.  Don’t think that we didn’t know about skin cancer in the 80s.  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 Nana 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 (

  • 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,’ 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-a-war ensues, with the lizard pulling on the elephant’s nose, stretching his snoz into a trunk and the rest is, as you can tell, 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, later.

If this serves as cautionary tale for someone, great.  Purpose served.

That being said, and I’ve kind of hinted around this above, I don’t think the “tanning bed” was the real problem.  I will talk about that in the future posts, more than anything because I hope my two boys will read about and understand what I’m saying later.  But for now it’s time to hit the bed- shades down of course.

Oh and in case I’ve given the impression that I’m sitting here wallowing in self-pity about any of the above, I am pasting this disturbing but somehow apropos (tangentially at least) and strangely hilarious picture of Santa catching some rays on the beach. Merry X-mas!

bad santa

Kind of makes you wish the mind had an backspace button that worked, doesn’t it?

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