Outside of One’s Skin

Hester Shaw of Mortal Engines

It was refreshing, I must say, to visit a dermatologist who did not within five minutes try to talk me into treatment for my lentigo. While aware of dermatology nomenclature and lesion description, I did not know the meaning of “lentigo”. Easy enough to find with Google.

Age spots.

I do wonder whether millennials even know that term, having been raised since infancy wearing sunscreen.

I grew up in California under the sun. There, we raced to see who could get the darkest tan. I always lost, being the daughter of a ginger dad and Wisconsin brunette. But I could tan, unlike my two sisters, freckled and red-headed like Dad. Sunscreen was a beach umbrella, not lotion or spray.

The dermatologist before this one told me about all the women who had undergone his treatment were happier than before. It’s just me, but, the idea of spending money to keep looking young just seems a waste of my dollars, and I don’t have very many of those.

This time I was spending the time in a dermatology waiting room because of the alien-like growth on my left upper arm. Not a wart, not a whitehead, but as it turns out squamous cell carcinoma.

Skin cancers such as these, including basal cell carcinoma, are 100% treatable, a thing I already knew. Keeping tabs on my skin geography is foremost in my mind a lot of the time. With the alien thing having grown rapidly and looking repulsive, it was time to see if off.

I have seen melanoma and know its habits, so I was 99% certain the blob was not that.

The husband and I traded jokes about Heinlein’s The Puppetmasters.

For the squeamish, I won’t describe the simple in-clinic procedure—I didn’t even have to put on the hateful gown. But it was over in seconds, and the alien was floating in a container of formulin to be shipped away to a pathologist. While he was at it, the eager young P.A. happily froze several little bits of actinic keratosis on my forearms. This stung—not a little but a lot, more like yellow jackets. It also raised tiny blisters resembling an outbreak of small pox. Actinic keratosis, rough patches on the skin from sun damage, can change costumes from supporting player to lead role, meaning they are pre-cancerous lesions.

My brush with skin disease is pretty mild, compared to scores of others such as psoriasis, eczema, vitligo (loss of melanin). I wrote a short story years ago, a futuristic SF piece, where my heroine suffered from vitiligo. A hunter hired by a pharma company to harvest a killer vine which, she discovers the vine produces a cure for vitiligo, which she was never told.

Our skin tells the story of our lives. Well, mine certainly does. The type of work we do, eating and drinking habits, hobbies. As authors, we often describe the skin of our characters as a way of introducing them to our readers. We might mention a scar or two, a rash, cuts and lacerations, bruises (how violent this story must be!). If we give a character a skin disease, it’s because appearance influences personality. To be itching all the time. To have to apply unguents or take potions. To hide the disfigurement. For a female character, a skin condition carries twice the burden. Women are brainwashed from birth to keep appearance is a priority.

A female detective with psoriasis could have a complex personality indeed.



About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison

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