I’ve had a patch of stuff on my scalp for several months. It seemed to be related to a minor problem I’ve had over the years with overactive oil production.
The patch was noticeable by touch, and over the weeks I could trace its progress with my fingers. It felt as if it were expanding a bit, making its way down the left side of my head. No pain, no discomfort. Just knowing it was there made me search it out and check its status. I never bothered to look at it.
Finally, last Saturday, I asked Barb to check it out. Seeing my scalp was nothing new for her, since my expanding bald spot has been observable for many years. But the spot I wanted her to look at was in an area still covered with a reasonably thick carpet of hair. She knew nothing about what had been going on because I had failed to mention anything about it. With no pain and no real discomfort, there really wasn’t much to talk about.
I pointed to the place on my head where she should look. She brushed my hair aside and gasped.
“Oh my God!” she said. “What is that?”
Of course, I had no idea.
“What does it look like?” I responded.
“It’s dark and pretty big. What did you do?”
I hadn’t really done anything, except just touch it from time to time and imagine what it might look like. In my mind, it was just a patch of scaly scalp.
“You should look at it yourself,” she said.
So I did. I took her hand mirror and, standing in front of the bathroom mirror, I was quickly able to find it.
“Holy cow!” I said. I had no idea . . .
That was on Saturday. By Monday morning, I had diagnosed myself with melanoma. I had spent some time web surfing for photos and descriptions of skin stuff, and the photos that seemed to keep popping up were those of cancerous growths that were difficult, if not impossible, to cure. Needless to say, thinking about having to deal with something like melanoma puts one in an certain frame of mind. It’s not only the impact it might have on one’s longevity, but also the thought of having to go through all sorts of tests and therapies and surgeries.
On Monday, I called a dermatologist and made an appointment for Tuesday morning. I was surprised to get in so soon. Perhaps dermatologists have lost customers due to the recession. Many of his customers must see him for cosmetic purposes. Cosmetics naturally take on less significance in one’s life when one is struggling to pay bills and keep food on the table.
At any rate, I arrived at the doctor’s office at 9 a.m. on Tuesday. I had not visited him since he had moved his office into a building next to the Aboite Branch of the library on Coventry Lane. Nice place, I thought, as I sat patiently and waited to get the bad news. I don’t know why, but each time I visit his office, no matter where it is, I always find myself speculating about the complaints of the other patients. I have never seen anyone with obvious symptoms like a major rash on the face or bandaged hands. It just makes me realize that many skin problems are hidden, like the stuff on my head. Skin problems in hidden places often remain undiagnosed. That can be dangerous.
Within a few minutes, and after I had speculated on the conditions of several women sitting in the waiting room, a young woman came out from the inner sanctum and took me to an examination room. She asked me some questions, typed my responses into a laptop computer, and told me the doctor would see me shortly. I waited and did some speculating about what might transpire. I figured the doctor would put on a magnifying device and carefully search through the patch for telltale signs of something with a Latin name I probably wouldn’t be able to pronounce. Using some sort of scalpel or tweezers, he would snatch up a piece of the stuff and send it somewhere for a biopsy.
The young woman was right. The doctor arrived just a few minutes after she had walked out. He brought along a young fellow who I assumed was a trainee.
“What’s going on today?” the doctor asked.
“I have a patch on my head right here,” I said, pointing to the exact location.
He touched my head and moved the hair aside.
“Oh yeah,” he said, his nose about six inches from my left cheek. “That’s a big one. Yes, that’s a nice one.”
“Yes, it’s a real beaut.”
I thought for a second that he thought I knew what it was. I quickly dispelled any notion of that.
“OK, but what is it?” I asked. I was confused. Anything that looked like the thing on my scalp should provoke shock and awe in almost anyone seeing it.
Everybody knows that skin can become inflicted with all sorts of stuff. Some of the stuff is merely annoying, like warts, freckles, pimples, and moles. Some of these, like pimples, will go away eventually. Others, like warts and moles, need incentives to depart. Still others, like freckles, are probably better ignored or just covered with creams that mask them. Other stuff, like rashes, can come on suddenly and leave just as suddenly, or can hang on stubbornly and make one’s life miserable. It’s the stuff we don’t recognize that’s the most troubling. The thing on my scalp is unlike anything I had ever seen, on my skin or on anyone else’s. For that reason, I was sure it was something very bad.
“Sebhorreic keratosis,” was the doctor’s reply.
“Oh,” I said. “So what is that?”
“It is not malignant. It won’t become malignant. It’s something that develops on the skin and that can be a nuisance but it’s not harmful. We can remove it surgically, but you’d probably have a scar and would lose some hair. I’ll just freeze it. That should take care of it, at least for a while. If it returns, come back and I’ll freeze it again.”
“What causes such a thing?” I asked.
“Thank your parents. This stuff is hereditary.”
The doctor brought out a bottle of liquid nitrogen. Without hesitation, he attacked my seborrheic keratosis and nearly froze my brain in the process. I’ve had a wart frozen before, but until you’ve had a patch of seborrheic keratosis frozen on your head you just don’t understand how thrilling the freezing process can be. I wondered if my skull would shatter under the intense cold blast. I swear he pressed that button for a full minute. He actually started a countdown during the last 10 seconds.
By the time I walked out of the office, my eyes were watering and I had a nice lump on my head. I was in better spirits even though I was in pain. I stopped worrying about skin cancer and started thinking about some stuff I had to take care of at work. It’s amazing how quickly our focus can be redirected.
Monkeys and apes might be farther back along the evolution chain, but they are more advanced in one way. Their mutual grooming practices undoubtedly uncover stuff in their coats that shouldn’t be there. I don’t know if monkeys get seborrheic keratosis, but I do know they can host all sorts of critters that are savored by their groomers. We humans would be better off if we spent some time with a spouse or a partner or even just a friend, checking scalps and other areas hidden from sight for bugs and worms and signs of skin afflictions. I know it seems a little weird, but it might save a lot of medical bills or even some lives.
The swelling on my head has diminished and I expect that in a day or so the patch on my scalp will start falling off. If nothing else, I am smarter now than I was a few days ago. I know what seborrheic keratosis is, and I know that I am genetically prone to it. I also know that I will be more curious in the future about what might be lurking in my hidden places.