Triathlon’s Dirty Little Secret

Professional triathlete Doug MacLean shares his experience with skin cancer.

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A lot of sports have their “dirty little secrets.”  In football, it’s concussions/brain trauma. In cycling, it’s random heart attacks from drug-affected blood. In bowling it’s… carpal tunnel syndrome? Well, triathlon’s “dirty little secret” is skin cancer.

There are three basic types of skin cancer: melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Of those three, melanoma is by far the most likely to spread, and eventually kill. Our sport mostly consists of a bunch of white people spending a crap ton of time out in the sun. So yeah, we’re a “high-risk population.” I know a LOT of people in the sport who have had skin cancer, and unfortunately, I’m just the latest victim.  The last 4-5 weeks of my life have been horrid, after I received a diagnosis of melanoma, on Nov. 10, 2014. The whole process culminated with surgery on Dec 9, 2014. The surgeon dug out all of the skin around the original melanoma spot, and then also removed three nearby lymph nodes, to check if the cancer spread. Fortunately, as I just found out, the cancer did not spread. So, it appears that I’ve dodged this bullet.

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Here’s the part where things get interesting. I originally went for a dermatology appointment on Aug 27, and showed them a spot on my hairline. I have no idea how long it was there. I only noticed it because I buzzed my hair for a race in August.

The dermatologist said it was “fine,” and sent me on my way. But, the spot was still bugging me, and so my girlfriend (the lovely & talented Lisa Holt) encouraged me to get another appointment to get it checked out again. So, I went back on Nov. 5, and made the dermatologist remove the spot and biopsy it. Five days later, it came back as positive for melanoma. I was floored, and cried for the first time in a looong time.

Luckily, its depth was relatively shallow, indicating that we caught it early. And the biopsy results I just got back confirmed that the cancer did not spread (although as anyone who’s had cancer can tell you, waiting for surgery, and biopsy results, is awful).

Here’s the point: I’ve dodged this bullet, but only because I was so friggin’ insistent that something was wrong with that spot.  I urge you to learn the “ABCD“s of melanoma, they could literally save your life. And the other thing to look for is the “which one of these is not like the other?” concept: If there’s a mole on your body that looks different than all of your other moles, get it checked out. If you catch it early, melanoma is relatively easy to treat, and cure. But if you don’t catch it early, things can get ugly.

Luckily, I was doggedly insistent that they remove the spot. Otherwise, the doctors would have left it there, and it would slowly still be boring into my head, a ticking time bomb waiting to kill me.

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I’ll leave you with a couple more nuggets of advice:

1) Sunscreen is good, but clothing is better.

2) I didn’t just get this because I’m a ginger. Out of everyone I know who has had melanoma, I’m the only ginger. Sure, fair-skinned folks are more susceptible to it, but ANYONE can get it. I had a friend who died in 2011 from melanoma, and he was not a ginger… Do not make the mistake of thinking you’re “immune” to skin cancer!

3) The skin “never forgets.” I’ve been super vigilant about sun protection for the last 4 years. Unfortunately, I wasn’t vigilant about sun protection from ages 16-29. My melanoma wasn’t caused by sun exposure from 2011 to 2014. It was caused by sun exposure from 1996 to 2010.

Doug MacLean is a pro triathlete who blogs at You can also follow him on Twitter (@dmactri).

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