Vietnam and Skin Cancer

The legacy of my thirteen years in and out of Vietnam is cursing me more than ever before: skin cancer.

Throughout all those years in Vietnam, we Americans wore as few clothes as possible because of the heat. Temperatures averaged between 91 and 95 degrees during the dry season, peaking periodically to 104 degrees. That was far hotter than any of us were used to. Going shirtless was standard.

I stayed darkly tanned for all those years, and I became so accustomed to the weather that I dreaded the coolness of the states. I became so acclimatized that to this day I enjoy hot weather and dislike the cold.

I had no idea that continuous exposure to the sun would damage the skin of a pale-complected man of Irish-English-Scottish lineage. When I returned to the states after the fall of Saigon in April 1975, I continued to wear few clothes during the summer months. I even sun bathed.

Some years after Vietnam—I don’t remember how long—my primary care physician sent me to a dermatologist. The diagnosis: skin cancer. I had all three types: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. The only treatment, as far as I know, is surgical removal of the cancerous tissue. I underwent so many excisions that I made no attempt to keep count.

The treatments went on for years. Then three or four years ago, for reasons I no longer remember, I stopped my dermatology visits. When I went for my regular routine checkup last month, my doctor recommended that I see a dermatologist. When I did, I discovered that I had skin cancer all over the upper half of my body. The excisions started all over again.

The worst so far has been inside my right ear. The skin there is so thin that cutting out the cancer required a skin graft, with flesh taken from my collar bone. The procedure took more than two hours. I now have one ear covered in bandages and a collar bone under gauze and tape.

I’ve learned my lesson, though it’s too late in life to seek correction by behavioral change. I’m stuck with the fruits of my youthful actions. It looks like I’ll be fighting skin cancer for the rest of my life. Fortunately, it’s not fatal.

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