At age 81, Gerald Ray has a mission: to let as many people as possible know about the dangers of skin cancer.
Having survived three bouts of melanoma — the deadliest of skin cancers that kills one American almost every hour — he feels lucky to be living. To him, it’s a clear message that he needs to spend his days handing out brochures from the National Cancer Institute that outline the signs of skin cancer and ways to protect your skin.
“Death is real,” said Ray, who retired as an educator in Reardan, Washington, at age 55 when he got his first melanoma on his chest. He said the tumor was so deep the surgeon dug through his chest muscles to the sheath of his heart.
“He told me I better retire and go fishing because I only had about two years,” Ray said.
Some 25 years later, Ray puts on his custom-made white T-shirt with large, black block letters that reads “PROTECT THE SKIN YOU’RE IN” and heads out to preach about skin cancer screenings, sunscreen and hats. He wears a large brimmed hat during his trips to wherever he has errands — the grocery, pharmacy and sometimes even large churches with lots of people with whom to talk. He would like to speak anywhere people will listen.
Ray is thin and his body twisted — he has a knee that isn’t operable and causes mobility issues and pain. But that doesn’t stop him, even if he has to use a cane or two or even his walker. He drinks smoothies he makes from peppers, broccoli, fruit and other healthy ingredients to maintain himself because he has a job to do.
Ray said most people are friendly and willing to listen and take a brochure, including one that has photos of different shapes, colors and sizes of melanomas and questionable moles.
He especially makes a point to talk to parents of small children and proudly tells of a mother who stopped him with thanks a few years back. Ray’s spiel in the aisle of a pharmacy encouraged her to take her two young daughters to the dermatologist where precancerous spots were found on both children. These successes keep Ray motivated.
“It’s amazing how many have had skin cancer in the family,” Ray said. “But they’ve forgot about it.”
Back in 1990, when Ray first found the spot on his chest that looked strange and discolored, his doctor discounted it. Ray argued with him to biopsy. Soon he was in surgery.
Ray, who at the time was a school superintendent, was adamant, because he had watched his secretary die of melanoma at age 45 because nobody believed skin cancer could occur in the pelvic region where there is usually no sun exposure.
“Sun is not the only cause of skin cancer,” said Chadd Sukut, a board-certified dermatologist and surgeon at Advanced Dermatology Skin and Surgery Center in Spokane, Washington. Family history, personal history of skin cancer, skin that burns easily and various medical conditions and medications can be other skin cancer factors.
“If you are ever concerned about a skin lesion being skin cancer, we always recommend seeing a dermatologist for a skin check,” he said.
Here are a few things Sukut suggests people look for and have checked by a dermatologist:
n Anything on the skin that changes size, shape or color.
n Anything that bleeds.
n A pimple or cyst that doesn’t seem to go away within up to six weeks.
After all, anybody can get skin cancer no matter their skin tone — although it is more common with fair complexions and especially among people with freckles. Legendary Jamaican musician Bob Marley died of melanoma at age 36 after a dark spot appeared under his toenail. Marley attributed it to a recent soccer injury but it turned out to be an aggressive cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Sunburns received in childhood can cause skin cancer to form several decades later, Sukut said.
“The earlier you educate young kids about skin protection, the better,” he added.
Besides wearing hats, long-sleeve shirts, pants and sunglasses, the most important thing people can do to protect themselves is wear a broad spectrum (that protects from both UVB and UVA rays) sunscreen with a SPF 30.
There are debates about the effectiveness of sunscreen, the chemicals in the products and whether aerosols are dangerous.
Recent research by scientists at Ohio State University discovered that using sunscreen with SPF 30 may prevent melanoma by 80 percent, according to an article by Tribune News Service. It’s long been known that sunscreens are an effective guard against sunburns but their ability to protect against melanoma has previously been unknown.
The rates of melanoma have doubled in the past 30 years, the article said.
Sukut said his opinion is to use sunscreen and most importantly reapply it every hour or two. Putting it on in the morning isn’t adequate.
“The benefits far outweigh any negatives of using sunscreen,” Sukut said, adding that, in general, most chemicals in sunscreen don’t absorb through the skin. He likes the aerosol sunscreens, especially for children, but warns people to use it in well-ventilated areas.
He also reminds people that sunscreen and skin protection isn’t just for the warm, summer days that follow the Memorial Day holiday. Anytime skin is exposed to the sun — even in winter or on cloudy days — it needs protection with clothes or sunscreen or both.
Ray tells people the same thing and doesn’t stop his proselytizing in the winter months.
“If I was getting just shut out and not making any progress I wouldn’t keep doing it,” Ray said. “I’m somebody who believes we have a purpose in life. In my case, I think I was born to help people.”