Skin cancer - Empty Nest by Curt Swarm


Sunburn used to be the badge of courage. As kids, we'd get so sunburned detasseling corn and walking beans that our noses had a semi-permanent hard, crusty blister. Peeling was the early camouflage. We never wore caps. Caps weren't cool. (Actually, they are cool, but not the type of “cool” we wanted.)

If anyone would have told us that we would be paying for this sun exposure later in life, they would have been ostracized. Even as late as last summer, I was still stripping down while mowing, proud of my suntan. But I was careful of my bald pate, giving it only half-an-hour of direct sun.

Stupid me. I'm paying the price now. This winter, I noticed some sore spots on the top of my head that I had picked at. (Don't do that!) I showed Ginnie. She clicked her tongue, scolding, and ordered me to the dermatologist. I reluctantly obeyed.

The dermatologist's name is Carol Menke. “Ah, ha!” I thought to myself. “A Menke. Local gal. I know a scad of Menkes.”

On the call to remind me of the appointment, the voice pronounced her name, “Menk.”

“Hmm,” I thought. “Have I been mispronouncing Menke all these years?”

Carol Menke was real nice. She carries a gun. I apologized for mispronouncing her name, and she laughed and said I was the second person that morning to apologize. “Miss Robo,” she said, “can't pronounce Menke.” She then zapped the top of my head a couple of times with her freeze gun. Studying my head closer, she decided a couple of biopsies were in order.


A week later the verdict was in, “Squamous Cell Carcinomas.” Enter Dr. Cleveland, a nice guy, wielding a scalpel. I couldn't see him working on the top of my head, but Ginnie, who went with me for moral support, said his hands flew, like they were trained—true sign of a professional.

Then we were sitting in the waiting room with the others Dr. Cleveland had operated on that morning. It was “Thursday Surgery”--six of us all together—nose, lips, ears, cheeks—waiting for pathology reports. We eyed each other and made small talk, “Nice lip you have there.”

“You, too, baldy.”

Ah, good news. Dr. Cleveland had gotten all the cancer (I knew he would) with the first cutting—sorta like hay.

Nearly 30 stitches later, my head feels like it's in a vise. Dr. Cleveland said I had the most flexible scalp he'd seen in a while, aiding him in closing up the incisions. I never thought I'd be complimented for having a flexible scalp.

But I'm in downright pain. Oh, well. I need to be thankful it wasn't melanoma.

The next day, Ginnie and I stopped at a restaurant that served liquor. I must admit, I had a fleeting thought (stinking thinking) of downing the tried-and-true pain killer—alcohol. When I told Ginnie, she had a conniption. Not to worry, I'm not about to blow 31 years of sobriety over a little, well, quite a lot of, pain.

We stopped at a convenience store for gas. I forgot to wear my cap, and a stranger asked me what happened to the top of my head. I told him I had some skin cancer removed. He told me that he had stage-4 pancreatic cancer, but that his prognosis was good. He then told me he would pray for me. I was a little taken aback—a complete stranger with stage-4 cancer saying he would pray for me, with simple skin cancer. I asked him his name. It was Bill. I prayed for Bill.

Guess what? I'm supposed to stay out of the sun. Shock, shock. In fact, Carol Menke (the lady with the gun) said I'm supposed to apply SPF-30 sun screen to all exposed skin every morning whether I'll be out in the sun or not. This is such a far cry from the “badge-of-courage” sunburn of my youth. But she has the gun.

Let this be a lesson to all the sun bathers and tanning-booth users out there. (We have a landscaper—blonde, flat-top haircut, blue eyed, fair skin, no hat. He just laughs at me and goes about his sunburned business.) UV light, whether it be natural or man made, not only prematurely ages the skin, the largest organ of the body, but sets you up for future squamous-cell hell. Contrary to popular belief, pale skin is Holy-Grail skin!

Have a good story?  Call or text Curt Swarm in Mt. Pleasant at 319-217-0526, email him at or visit his website at

Curt Swarm, editorial, Empty Nest, guest author, Mt. Pleasant, opinion, Pen City Current


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