Close Encounters of the Worst Kind: Melanoma on the Rise
In his first book, Melanoma: It Started with a Freckle, Jewish author David L. Stanley tells the story of his battle with melanoma. His humor comes through – yet he never minimizes the seriousness of this frightening disease. Stanley, a science teacher, is the son of a physician and the husband of a nurse, and he writes about the intricacies of human anatomy and biology in an understandable, engaging way. His descriptions of the interplay of skin muscles, capillaries, arteries and nerves are as engrossing as his description of his emotional state upon learning of the dreaded diagnosis of what he calls the “rat bastard” cancer.
David lived to tell his story because his melanoma was caught early. This book serves as a cautionary tale to help others do the same. A wise read at any time of year, it is especially timely now because May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month.
ReformJudaism.org: In your story, you candidly describe your anxiety and panic during visits to the doctor and when going for an MRI. How has revealing these parts of yourself affected your life and work?
David Stanley: The anxiety I felt when I had cancer has given me immense compassion for those who deal with anxiety on a daily basis. It also taught me a visceral truth: When you admit a “weakness,” you learn it’s not necessarily a weakness. It just is – and then you can own it. I set out to write a useful and honest book, and I worked hard to keep it 100% authentic. When you’re authentic, you connect with people on an intimate level. If you do that as an author, you truly connect with readers, and people will want to share your work. Writers, like any other performers, want people to like us.
You write, “Of the seven most common cancers in the U.S., melanoma is the only one whose incidence is growing.” Why is that?
The mortality rates for heart disease, stroke, and other cancers are falling, and more people are living longer. That opens the door for melanoma. The biggest cohort of melanoma is white men in their 50s. According to a meta-study done by JAMA Dermatology, there are now more new cases of skin cancer (not just melanoma) caused by commercial tanning than there are new cases of lung cancer caused by smoking.
And yet, the indoor tanning industry generates $5 billion annually. What do you tell people about the danger of tanning booths?
We’ve created a society where the only sexy skin is tan skin – and sexy sells. The tanning industry struck gold at just the right time, before awareness of skin cancer hit the mainstream. Because the dangers of tanning were generally ignored, there was no legislation and no informed consent; only a few states have age limits and/or parental consent requirements. But the skin cancers caused by tanning salons are every bit as real as the skin cancers caused by the sun; your skin can’t differentiate between the sources of UV radiation. The World Health Organization lists UV radiation as a Group 1 carcinogen, which means it causes cancer, just like plutonium, tobacco smoke, and benzene.
Your book includes personal reflections and conversations as you went through your surgeries. What was it like to look back at your terrifying ordeal this way?
The book grew out of blog posts I wrote 10 years ago, and because it was a few years after the fact, it wasn’t that tough to relive the events while I worked on the book. What was tough was narrating the audiobook. Just like a stage actor, you have to inhabit the character – dive right in and “own” that character – so my feelings resurfaced and became very real, complete with fear and sweats.
Your book really highlights your curiosity about and knowledge of science. Do you believe that God and faith have any role in science, medicine, and healing?
I’m hugely spiritual, and while I’m proudly Jewish, it’s not in a “God does miracles” way. I’m not a believer in intercessory prayer – not for an instant. But the warmth that is created when others reach out to you is remarkable, and that can come from religious communities. My Reform Jewish community at Temple Beth El in Flint, MI, helped my psyche during some tough moments. Helping others who are suffering and visiting the sick are the best mitzvot (commandments).
For the greatest comfort, I practice mindfulness, which can take many forms. Going to Shabbat services and experiencing the calming effect of ritual is a form of mindfulness, a way to find peace in the midst of a cancer struggle. When I stand with my congregation during the Sh’ma and chant those 2,000-year-old words, it sends chills down my spine. For a few minutes, I am wholly in the moment, with no thoughts of any physical issues.
I’ve had a mindfulness practice since the mid-1980s, drawn from the Zen tradition: I’m a Zen Juddhist - sitting on the zafu (a round Japanese cushion), counting my breath. I’ve found no better way to calm and quiet my mind – and trust me, I need it. Just sit and breathe.
Melanoma can be associated with BRCA mutations, genetic flaws that inhibit individuals' ability to suppress tumors. Although such mutations are rare – occurring in approximately 1 in 400 individuals in the general population – they are 10 times more prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews (1 in 40).