Triathlon’s Dirty Little Secret

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 3 basic types of skin cancer – melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma… of those 3, 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 (but now survivor… hell yeah!).  The last 4-5 weeks of my life have been horrid, after I received a diagnosis of melanoma, on November 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 3 nearby lymph nodes, to check if the cancer spread.  Fortunately, as I just found out today, the cancer did not spread.  So, it appears that I’ve dodged this bullet.

Here’s the part where things get interesting…

I originally went for a dermatology appointment on Aug 27, and showed them this spotIMG_2235[1]

(worth noting… 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, so I made an appointment to get it checked out again.  I went back on November 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, it’s depth was relatively shallow, indicating that we caught it early.  And the biopsy results I got back today confirmed that the cancer did not spread (although as anyone who’s had cancer can tell you, waiting for surgery, and biopsy results, is goddamned 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 – i.e., 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.

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!  (ex. Bob Marley died of melanoma. He was definitely… not a ginger)

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 – 2014. It was caused by sun exposure from 1996 – 2010.

And… just for fun, here are my surgery scars, which will serve as a reminder of this whole mess, for the rest of my life…

IMG_2758[1]  IMG_2759[1]   IMG_2735[1]   IMG_2747[1]

Anyways… that’s that…

Keep training hard, and resting harder,

Doug MacLean

12 thoughts on “Triathlon’s Dirty Little Secret

  1. Nevermind that Melanoma on your neck, did someone notice or check out that eyeball on the upper left side of your head? Good to hear on the news buddy. Ya know Ithaca’s further away from the sun than Boulder right?

  2. wow, man, glad you’re ok now! That is really scary. My dad had 1 melanoma removed many years ago, and my brother had 16 melanoma’s removed last year. I get checked every year like clockwork. But I know this is your worst nightmare come true! So glad you caught it early.

  3. Congrats that you caught it early! I am a fellow survivor (10yrs cancer free) and IMLou 2014 finisher. Passed a 7yr survivor on the bike at Louisville with a F*ck cancer sticker.
    Awesome that the diagnosis doesn’t keep us from our love of the sport. I got into triathlon years after my diagnosis and treatment and my oncologist cheers me on. He,too,is a triathlete! BTW, a good bar fight/shark attack story is fun reason for the scar LOL.

  4. Stumbled upon this thanks to a friend’s posting on FB. As a pasty white guy, I appreciated the reminder to be vigilant in my sun protection routines and the link to the ABCD’s of melanoma.

    I wanted to share with you an organization that offers a FREE service that may have (may still) been of use to you in those first few stressful days after your diagnosis. offers 1-on-1 cancer support to patients and caregivers, matching them with someone who has been through the journey and can offer the comfort that only someone who has walked the walk can do.

  5. Great reminder, thank you for sharing. Any suggestions on sunscreens that stay on well through swimming/sweating for long durations?

    • Well, as I always say, “Sunscreen is good, but clothing is better.” So, I cover up as much skin, as is practical, with sun-protective clothing. On any exposed skin leftover, I use either Hara sunblock, Goddess Garden, or Desitin (yes, the diaper rash cream)

  6. The Melenoma Research Foundation has a booth at the Kona Ironman Expo every year. My friend and local dermatologist and Kona Ironman finisher Dr. Monica Scheel man’s it for 3 or 4 days and does free skin cancer checks for anyone who comes by. She is always looking for volunteers to help out with getting people signed up. I would encourage you to sign up and be a testimonial for other athletes. Every year we see a few hundred athletes come in and usually find 3 or 4 cases of melanoma.

  7. this is very similar to my story, and I’m so glad you are getting the word out! I was diagnosed with melanoma in 2014, 3 days before I raced Eagleman 70.3. The melanoma was on my upper arm, and I’m so thankful my dermatologist did a biopsy! Both my dermatologist and my husband, who is a physician, did not think it looked like melanoma at all. If it weren’t for my annual screening, I would have never noticed. I then had surgery, a wide local excision as well as sentinel node biopsy- and fortunately I too learned it had not spread! I decided to channel all of my fears and anxiety over the whole thing into doing something good- and signed up to raise money through the Miles for Melanoma program (Melanoma Research Foundation’s endurance team). I raced Ironman Maryland under 11 hours, my first full, and raised over $3300! Along the way, I shared my story dozens of times, and prompted many friends to get their skin checks- and I know of at least 4 people who had abnormal findings needing to be removed. Many of us triathletes in our 30-50’s take good care of our skin now, but the damage from years of playing sports, lifeguarding etc is done. We need to be especially vigilant with sun protection, sun avoidance and screening. Thanks for getting the word out! Rachel Varn

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