I WAS JUST A SMALL BOY when our family dentist in Houston told my father it was imperative that he have his wisdom teeth taken out immediately. Fifty years later, my dad had them removed. My old-timer friend Earl Buckelew once told me he never paid any mind to cholesterol. “Hell,” he said, “when we were growin’ up, we didn’t even know we had blood.” My own attitude toward health matters has been pretty similar. In Hawaii and Australia, I’ve rarely bothered to apply suntan lotion unless it was to a shapely pair of legs obviously not belonging to me. In other words, I never gave much thought to saving my own skin. Then, things suddenly got serious as cancer.
Before my typewriter and I drown ourselves in intimations of mortality, let me say for the record that I’m not a hypochondriac, nor do I believe every word a doctor tells me. I’ve always possessed the two qualities that Ingrid Bergman claimed were essential to happiness: good health and bad memory. (At least I think it was Ingrid Bergman.) The fact is, sometimes if you ignore what a doctor tells you, everything will be fine. Other times you can answer that knock on the door and it’s an old man with a scythe selling Girl Scout cookies.
At any rate, when I was in Austin a few months back, I noticed that parts of my anatomy were beginning to resemble those of an ancient sea tortoise. My Kerrville dermatologist, Fred Speck (I always thought Dr. Speck was a good name for a dermatologist), has a rather long waiting list, so I went to a new guy, Tom Yturri, a physician’s assistant recommended to me by a doctor friend of my fairy godmother’s. When I showed Yturri what was troubling me, he waved his hand and said it was nothing, but he did find two or three other little spots that piqued his curiosity. He brought in another guy, who was wearing a rather elaborate pair of scuba goggles, and they studied the spots together.
“We’ll do biopsies on these three,” Yturri said at last.
“Let me guess,” I said. “Whether you do two or three depends on how far behind you are on your boat payments?”
Yturri chuckled dryly. He did the biopsies fairly painlessly, putting each specimen into a separate little bottle like Dr. Quincy used to do on TV. Quincy was a coroner, of course, so his patients rarely made wisecracks.
“We’ll call you in a few weeks,” Yturri said. “Don’t worry. It’s probably nothing.”
That was when I started to worry—and for good reason. Four days later, Yturri called to say that the spot on my shoulder was a melanoma. Very bad. The spot under my right eye was something that sounded like a “Sasquatch,” which I’d always thought was an abominable snowman. Also very bad. Both of them, along with my wallet, had to be surgically removed right away. The spot on my right arm, apparently, was benign.
Why me? I’d never been perfect, but at least I’d been God-fearing enough to avoid going to temple. And what the hell was a melanoma, anyway? Like most Americans, I had no idea, although I knew I didn’t want one. Fortunately, Roscoe West, formerly of the Texas Jewboys, was my housepest at the ranch that weekend. His brother, he said, had once had a melanoma. Is he still with us? I asked. No, Roscoe said. I see, I said, as I swallowed my cigar.
I also talked with people who knew someone with a melanoma who’d survived and had never been visited with skin cancer again. All this put me through some rather wild mood swings, at times causing me to feel almost at death’s door. I’d tell friends about my situation, and they’d say, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” This response did little to lift my spirits. At other times, however, I found myself in a surprisingly good mood. Fighting cancer, I thought, might help lend focus to my otherwise unstructured life. It might give me something I’d never really had before: a hobby.
On the day of my surgery, I met with two doctors: Aravind Sankar, from India by way of Los Angeles, and Patti Huang, from Taiwan by way of North Carolina. I came from Northwest Austin by way of pickup truck. “This ain’t what’s going to get you, Kinky,” Dr. Sankar assured me. “The melanoma is very superficial.”
“So am I,” I told him. “But I don’t want to die before the next Yanni concert.”
In a small bed in a small room, wearing a hospital smock, I watched a young nurse try to put a needle in my arm for the IV. A fifteen-year-old from a local high school was standing by taking copious notes.
“Damn!” I said, after being jabbed repeatedly to no avail.
“Please don’t curse,” the nurse said officiously.
“What the hell?” I said, paraphrasing my father. “I can’t say ‘damn’ in front of a c-h-i-l-d?”
I was angry. The one thing I didn’t need was a young person who couldn’t put in an IV giving me a morality lecture just moments before I was to be wheeled into surgery. Luckily, a major tension convention was avoided. Another person came in, put in the IV, and before I knew it, I was in the operating room.
Dr. Huang would be cutting on my face, apparently, at the same time that Dr. Sankar would be carving up my shoulder. Dr. Sankar introduced me to the anesthesiologist, whom he referred to as “the bartender.” After that, it all seemed like a normal evening at the Continental Club. Later, Dr. Sankar told me that I’d really cracked up the operating room as I was coming to. Evidently, someone had asked me a question about my having been in the Peace Corps. My response, according to the good doctor, was that my penis had been cut off in Borneo.
At this writing, I’m happy to say that I’m alive and well and freely dispensing advice to wear sunscreen, a big hat, and a long-sleeved shirt and to see your dermatologist regularly. In the case of old farts like myself, however, the damage was done long ago, and young people probably won’t listen anyway. Health, after all, is merely the slowest possible rate at which we die.
The good news is that skin cancer is rarely fatal if caught early. I do have two little tips to share with you, both of which have worked for me. The first is to do what Michael Jackson does: Hire a guy to follow you around with an umbrella. If that doesn’t work, try singing that cheerful old John Denver song, “Melanoma on my shoulder makes me happy.”