Brian Sullivan was about to lose his eye to skin cancer. The 56-year-old professional sailboat racer had dealt with multiple basal cell carcinomas — the least deadly and most treatable type of skin cancer — over his more than 40 years on the water. So when another spot first appeared beneath his right eye in 2012, he didn't worry too much about it. But before long, the tumor had grown significantly and began bleeding.
Sullivan stalled. "I kept kicking the can down the road, because I didn't have health insurance at the time," he says. "But mostly I was scared to go to the doctor and hear bad news — that I had messed up and it had spread through my glands."
A friend finally dragged him to a top dermatologist in Boston where he was told — as he feared — that he needed a highly invasive operation to remove the basal cell carcinoma. The procedure came with the risk that he would lose his entire eye. "She didn't know for sure if I would have lost my whole eye or just my lower eyelid," he says. "If just my eyelid, they would have given me a cadaver eyelid, which would have meant I'd have permanent dry eye."
Fortunately for Sullivan, just one week prior to Sullivan's doctor visit, a new drug called Erivedge had gotten FDA approval. This medication was originally designed to shrink brain tumors, but it had also proven effective at shrinking basal cell carcinomas until they were small enough to be operated on. After one year on Erivedge, the tumor had dwindled completely, and Sullivan was able to avoid surgery — and keep his eye.
But taking this harsh drug for a year was no picnic. "It's essentially a pharmaceutical chemotherapy, so it has many of the chemo side effects you'd expect," he says. "I went from over 200 pounds to 151, lost all of the hair I had left, had muscle spasms, lost my sense of taste, lost my appetite. And I'd sleep a lot. One time I went down for nap at 4 pm on a Friday and couldn't believe it when I woke up and saw that Saturday Night Live was on."
Sullivan continues to live cautiously, with high odds that he'll develop more tumors in the future thanks to his fair skin, family history of skin cancer, and, primarily, the sun exposure he accumulated over decades of racing sailboats. "Beginning back in the 1980s when I was in my early 20s, we'd be on the water by 9:30 am and stay out until 5:30 pm every Saturday and Sunday," Sullivan says. "I was probably out in the sun racing 60 days a year, every year for about 15 years. And we did a lot of runs to Bermuda and Jamaica. I would put on sunscreen, but would sweat it off because racing requires a lot of work — getting sails up and down and back and forth. Or else it would wash off when I'd get wet. Either way, you'd put sunscreen on once and not think you'd need anymore.".
By 1992, he noticed the first curious-looking red spot on his body. It proved to be basal cell carcinoma, and he had it removed in 1995. About five years later, he moved to Newport, Rhode Island, and began going out on his boat mostly just after work. "I wasn't wearing as much sunscreen as I should have because I was going out more in evenings — and that's right around when the wave of spots showed up," he says. "When I went to the doctor, I had about 40 spots on my body, most of them small. She probably scraped 30 off, and the rest were more serious."
Sullivan no longer spends as much time on boats and is diligent about wearing sunscreen, but "I'm sure these spots will continue to pop up due to all of the exposure I've had over my lifetime—because it collects," he says. "It's something I'll always have to stay on top of. I never want to go on that drug again."
Now Sullivan is on a mission to encourage other guys to stay safe in the sun so they don't find themselves in his shoes. "No matter your complexion, wear sunscreen if you know you're going to be outside longer than 20 minutes," he says. "Remember, Bob Marley died of skin cancer. Collective exposure to the sun can mean recurring skin cancer."
He also stresses seeing a dermatologist the moment you notice a spot that looks suspicious — especially if you find an irregular-shaped or odd-colored mole or one that itches or scabs up and doesn't heal. Those are classic signs of melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer. "Do not be afraid to go to the doctor," Sullivan says. "Find a dermatologist with a good track record, and get the spot or mole checked right away. If you catch it early, there's a chance it can have almost no impact on your life. But if you let it go, it can be deadly."
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