Triathlete Love: The Skin We’re In

Columnist Susan Lacke recounts a recent experience with skin cancer.

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Columnist Susan Lacke recounts a recent experience with skin cancer.

The night before my first “real” date with Neil, I got a text message:

“FYI—I’ll be sporting a Band-Aid on my forehead tomorrow. Try not to laugh.”

As it turned out, Neil’s dermatologist found a skin cancer spot on his head, prompting him to perform a biopsy. I texted him back to reassure him I’d keep the joking to a minimum: If anyone can pull off the Band-Aid trend, it’s you.

Last week, we celebrated our four-year anniversary of that first date. This time around, Neil was sporting a Band-Aid once more, but with a twist: a giant bald spot on the dome of his head, complete with a deep three-inch scar where the dermatologist removed yet another skin cancer lesion from his scalp.

“How do I look?” Neil asked as he looked up at me from the doctor’s examination table.

“If anyone can pull off a ‘Friar Tuck’ haircut,” I squeezed his hand and smiled, “it’s you.”

As triathletes who live and train in Arizona, we’re no strangers to skin cancer. Though we get 300 glorious, sunny days of swimming, cycling and running each year, there’s been a price to pay. We, along with almost all of our friends, have exited the dermatologist’s office with a Band-Aid on the forehead, nose or shoulders after having cancerous or pre-cancerous spots removed. Neil’s first visit to the dermatologist—the one that resulted in his unique accessory on our first date—was prompted by the death of his father, who had passed away from skin cancer only a few months prior.

In spite of his history with skin cancer, Neil didn’t have another appointment with his dermatologist in the four years since our first date. Whenever I reminded him to make one, he always had an excuse why he couldn’t: a busy work schedule, a need to do a long ride that day and a constant refrain of “I’m sure I’m fine, honey. You worry too much.”

This year, I didn’t even remind him. When I made my own appointment for my yearly skin screening in August, I scheduled one for him, too. When he protested with his usual busy-schedule excuse, I stood my ground and told him to make the time.

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Some couples celebrate their anniversary with fancy clothes and candlelit dinners. We spent ours in paper gowns, listening to a dermatologist explain how he was going to shave a wide circle in Neil’s scalp, then remove a patch of skin the size of a half-dollar all the way down to his skull. Was it romantic? Hardly. But it was still the best thing we could have done for our relationship.

You see, four years of adventures with Neil hasn’t been enough for me. I’m pretty sure 40 years won’t be enough, either. Part of the reason we chose the swim-bike-run lifestyle is because we want to live a long and healthy life together. Neil’s dad may have died young because of skin cancer, but I’ll be damned if I see his son suffer that same fate.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, sun overexposure and sunburn are a major concern for endurance athletes. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in sunny Arizona, rainy Oregon or the high mountains of Colorado—sun exposure is sun exposure. Each year, there are more cases of skin cancer diagnosed in the United States than there are breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer combined.

There are a lot of things triathletes can do in an attempt to prevent the incidence of skin cancer: train outdoors in the early morning or late evening hours, when the sun’s rays are not as strong; wear UV-blocking clothing, hats and sunglasses; apply (and reapply) sunscreen; and avoid sunburns in every way possible. But even diligence about sun safety doesn’t guarantee health.

That’s why I’m going to implore all triathletes to make an appointment for an annual skin cancer screening today—and while you’re at it, make one for your spouse or partner, too.

It may not fit the conventional idea of romance, but it’s a gesture of love nonetheless.

RELATED: 6 Things Triathletes Should Know About Sun Protection

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