After 30 years of bicycling, I now have skin cancer

I always wear a helmet when I ride. I wear polycarbonate sunglasses to protect my eyes. And padded bike gloves to cushion my hands and prevent road rash if I should fall.

I ride defensively, keeping a close look out for dangerous, careless and otherwise inattentive drivers. As well as dogs, pedestrians, tourists and other cyclists. And bees, of course.

But none of that prevented the sun from shining down on my unprotected face, causing a single, minute cell to mutate. And eventually, develop into a tumor hiding in plain site on the side of my nose.

It could have happened when I lived in Colorado, riding 50 miles a day, seven days a week, in the rarified high-altitude air that lets more of the sun’s damaging rays penetrate. Or maybe it began in San Diego, where the near-perfect weather invited leisurely, day-long rides around the bay or up the coast.

It might even go all the back to my childhood, when family doctors still said the sun was good for you, and suntan lotions magnified, rather than blocked, the sun’s damaging rays.

It doesn’t really matter. It’s done, and I have it.

See the skin cancer in this photo? Neither did the first three doctors I showed it to.

I have skin cancer.

For the first 10 or 15 years of my riding career, it would never have occurred to me to put sunscreen on my face. In those days, it was used to prevent sunburn, not skin cancer. And as a year round cyclist, I had a dark enough tan that sunburn wasn’t an issue.

Eventually, the various warnings about skin cancer got through my thick skull, and I started wearing an SPF 8, then a 25.

Now I wear an SPF 50 on every exposed surface, every time I ride.

Funny thing is, I noticed a hard little spot about the size of a pinhead on my nose three or four years ago; three different doctors dismissed it as harmless.

It was the fourth, a dermatologist, who didn’t.

My doctor had referred me to have something else checked out; she quickly determined that was harmless. But as long as I was there, I pointed out that other spot once again.

As first she agreed with the other doctors, since it lacked the irregular shape and discoloration typical of skin cancers. Then she looked at it again, this time under magnification, and spotted a raised outer ridge and central depression typical of basal cell cancer.

Still, she was reasonably certain it wasn’t cancer. But decided to do a biopsy just to be sure.

Then about a month ago, I was on my bike when my cell phone rang. The doctor said the biopsy had confirmed a basal cell carcinoma. As she put it, “There’s no such thing as a good cancer. But if you’re going to have cancer, this is the one you want.”

The good thing about it, she explained, was that, unlike a squamous cell carcinoma or the more serious melanoma, this type of cancer grows slowly and doesn’t spread. It can be removed surgically, with no further treatment required.

No radiation, no chemo.

But now that I’ve had the first one, I’ll be at greater risk of a recurrence, for the rest of my life.

Unfortunately, its location in the middle of my face meant that she couldn’t do the surgery. It requires a specialist capable of getting all the cancer while minimizing the scarring. She got me a referral, and I made the appointment.

For tomorrow.

As I understand the procedure, they’re going to remove all the cancer they can see, then biopsy it on the spot. If it shows they got it all, they’ll patch me up and send me home; if not, they’ll repeat the procedure until the biopsy comes back clean.

A little discomfort, a few weeks to heal and — hopefully — a small, barely noticeable scar.

I’ll be fine. Really.

But if you want to help, there is something you can do. Put on some sunscreen before your next daylight ride, and every one after that. And if you notice any unusual spots or bumps on your skin, or any moles that change shape or color, show it to your doctor; if it doesn’t go away, don’t take “it’s nothing” for an answer.

Because clearly, drivers aren’t the only danger we face out there. And nothing would make me happier than to know that my cancer helped prevent yours.

If you feel compelled to do something more, consider a donation to the American Cancer Society, so maybe they can find a cure before you or someone you love needs it.

I have skin cancer.

With a little luck, a few hours from now, I won’t.

28 comments

  1. TheTricksterNZ says:

    Not to sound like a dick, but yeah, things could be a WHOLE lot worse. I’m not sure if that’s the kind that my mum has had for years, but all she has to do (again thanks to public health here) is go to the doc, get it burnt off and she’s home within a couple hours and it was the same for my grandfather for many years (RIP – but that was from a massive heart attack). Still it can be scary and IT IS something you will have to monitor for the rest of your life. Unfortunately living in the country with the worst (or one of) skin cancer rate in the world thanks to the Ozone hole sitting over/near us most of the year it’s just a fact of life down here which we try and mitigate as much as possible.

    The thing that could have made it dangerous is the fact that your doc didn’t spot it first time out and it took 4 years before anyone said anything to you.

    I’m sure your doc has already said this, but I’d seriously recommend getting yourself a mole map done. I understand they’re not cheap, however its a handy way of monitoring mole activity and changes from summer to summer.

    But yeah, best of luck and lets hope they get it all in one go.

  2. Zeke Yount says:

    I recall, as a lifeguard in my teens, that we would pour iodine into baby oil and slather it all over us to get that “perfect” tan while we sat 8 hours a day in the sun. Little did we know…

    - Zeke

  3. jlyle says:

    Don’t forget to wear a dorag or cap under your helmet! Even with hair on your head, the vents in a helmet allow sun exposure to your scalp. I know, I suffered from actinic keratosis due to the above.

  4. timur says:

    Sorry to hear this, but best of luck with the procedure.

  5. Digital Dame says:

    I get the sense you’re a little freaked out by this. Stay positive, I will think good thoughts for you. Let us know how it goes.

  6. Pants Yabbies says:

    Thanks for sharing this. My dad had a malignant mole removed from his back a few years back. I don’t recall if it was basal cell carcinoma or not, but it sounds like it was. It’s been several years, and he’s doing fine. I’m sure you will be fine, too. As a young man (under 30) myself with (now) a family history of skin cancer, I need to be vigilant about this. Thanks for the reminder!

  7. BobK says:

    I had the exact same thing a few years ago (around age 40). Luckily I was already seeing a dermatologist every 6 months because of other, non-cancerous sun damage, so he caught it right away. They did the same procedure you described and I have had no serious problems since. You have to look very carefully to see the scar. Sunscreen is a pain, but its the price we pay for living outside. I second your advice that if you have something on your skin that doesn’t go away in a month or so, get it checked out by a dermatologist.

  8. I got chills reading the headline. I’m so relieved to read it’s the most successfully treatable form. My best wishes for a quick and complete procedure and a speedy recovery.

  9. Thaddeus Dombrowski says:

    I have been checked out several times. No cancer, so far. But, my mom has had it several times. Scars on her face and back. My sister recently had basal cell removed from her nose next to her eye. She had to follow that with some plastic surgery. Fortunately, it didn’t mess with her tear ducts, but it was close to doing so.

    Good luck with yours. Hopefully, this will be your only experience with it.

  10. bikinginla says:

    Thanks for all the good wishes, everyone. And yes Dame, I was a little freaked out about it. It’s one thing to know intellectually that it’s not that serious; it’s quite another to hear that word “cancer” and not react emotionally.

    Fortunately, the surgery to remove the carcinoma was a breeze, but the cosmetic surgery to repair the damage was another matter entirely. I feel like my nose has gone 15 rounds as Mike Tyson’s punching bag. But they got it all, and that’s what counts.

    My real concern is in writing about this is for younger riders to take my experience as fair warning, and slather on the sunscreen now.

  11. Digital Dame says:

    “But they got it all, and that’s what counts.”

    Phew! Glad to hear it. I figure it’s a matter of time for me. With all the sunburns I had as a teenager, and being very fair-skinned to begin with, it’s probably already too late for me.

  12. Glad to hear they got it all. I try to always do sunscreen when out on longer rides, but have forgotten a few times. I’m going to be a little more careful about that. Hope you heal up quick.

  13. Well it’s good to hear that it’s mild & treatable. Time to put latex paint on before riding I guess . . .

  14. onyourleft says:

    What a wake up call. Glad to hear that it’s among the most treatable variety. Best of luck tomorrow.

    I’ll be wearing sunscreen from now on.

  15. Scott says:

    Hope you’re feeling better, Ted.

  16. Digital Dame says:

    How are you doing now?

    • bikinginla says:

      Just about back to normal, other than a small bandage on my nose. Funny how much such a minor surgery took out of me for the first few days; maybe it was just the built-up stress from a month of anticipation.

  17. Digital Dame says:

    Any kind of surgery is a trauma to the body, and noses are very sensitive. That’s why after someone gets a nose-job, they’ll end up with black eyes and look like they were beaten.

  18. Naomi says:

    I have skin cancer too. I just got the call yesterday to confirm the result of the biopsy done a little over a week ago. Basal cell carcinoma. I am 31 years old. It is also near my the based of my nose. I still have lots of questions. I only got to speak to the nurse. I wasn’t one to lay out extensively. I did spend my summers as a child/youth at the pool. I was very dark. Don’t recall if sunscreen was applied or not. It probably was. But probably not reapplied…

    I go on in a few weeks to hopefully get it removed. They plan on doing it in office, but if he feels he can’t, then he’ll refer me out.

    Yes, on the one hand, not a big deal, especially compared to other things. But still very shocking to say and hear the words…I have skin cancer. Thanks for your post.

    • bikinginla says:

      Sorry to hear the news, Naomi. The good news is, the surgery and recovery wasn’t all that bad, and I only have a tiny scar that usually isn’t even noticeable. The bad news is, once you’ve had one, you have a much higher chance of having a recurrence in the next few years. And I know exactly what you mean about hearing those words. I take it in stride now, but the first few weeks were hard to take.

      Feel free to contact me directly if you want, bikinginla at hotmail dot com.

  19. coco says:

    Hello there! Yes, this indeed is a scary situation for anyone to go through. My mom who is now in her early 50′s recently got diagnosed. The first spot was on the side of her nose as well. She went through 3 or 4 procedures for the dermatologist to get it all.

    Recently, they found 2 other spots on her; one on her chest and one on her back. The recent biopsy tested positive.

    I have been wearing spf 100 for the last 10 years or so and avoiding the sun as much as possible. I remember the first time I read about skin cancer and that was enough to scare the hell outta me. However, my mother still refuses to wear sublock. I recommend for people like her to get spf proof clothing if you must be out in the sun; you can even get a hat with a uv veil. Just sayin

  20. Duane Behrens says:

    Just picked up on this thread. Sorry, but it just seems a bit screwed up to be told to protect one’s self from the sun’s rays at all costs. Anyone who’s ever been without the sun for weeks on end knows how rejuvenating that re-connection with the sun’s rays can be; It’s your body, absorbing Vitamin D. Laying (or riding) in the bright sun, unprotected, for 8 hours a day is probably too much. But SPF100 under hats under umbrellas – i.e., total avoidance of sunshine and the Vitamin D it provides – must surely be every bit as bad, eh?

  21. Ann says:

    Thank you for this post. I’m a cyclist and just got the same diagnosis and will have Moh’s surgery. I’ve always worn sunscreen, but I guess it wasn’t enough. I will continue to cycle, but it’s a wake up call and I’ll certainly vigilant for the future.

    • bikinginla says:

      Best of luck to you, Ann. My experience is the diagnosis is a lot scarier than the actual disease. Two years later, I’m cancer-free with just a small scar on my nose — something you probably won’t even have.

      I’ll say a few prayers for you that they get it all, and you put this behind you quickly and permanently.

      • Ann says:

        Thank you so much! You are quite right. With the initial shock worn off and the stitches out, I’m less scared. I’m back on the bike and will remain vigilant and covered in sunscreen. Great blog!

  22. […] the road; I didn’t think it mattered, and rode unprotected for years. Now I know better, having learned the hard way. So get a good, sweat-proof sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more, and wear it on every bit of […]

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