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September 25, 2014 10:57 AM

Dick_Johnson_(2)Toby Smith talks to Dick Johnson about Johnson’s bout with skin cancer.

Skin cancer among tennis players is a fact of life. Greats of the court like John Newcombe and Chris Evert experienced the problem following their playing days. So have many recreational players. If you learned to play tennis in northern New Mexico, you likely know about the dangers of the sun. For Dick Johnson, 69, a longtime successful boys coach at La Cueva High School and a familiar tennis figure in the Southwest, those dangers provided him with a serious lesson. (Photo by Sissy Kelly.)

How did you discover you had skin cancer?

It was right before the state tournament this past May.  My wife, Marcie, noticed there was a small dark mole on the back of my left arm. I had another mole near there removed some time before, but Marcie hadn’t seen this one before. She recommended I go to a dermatologist.

What did that reveal?

I had a biopsy and it turned out to be malignant melanoma. Stage 2.

How did that hit you?

Well, my first reaction was the old Why me?  Then, it was, Let’s get this taken care of as quickly as possible.  I didn’t tell the kids (at La Cueva) about this.  The Monday after the state tournament I had a procedure done.  

Were you awake?

Oh, no, they knocked me out cold.  The operation lasted about an hour.  They took out a pretty good-sized chunk.  

Seems to me I’ve seen you well-covered up when you coach or are around where tennis is played.  You often wear long-sleeve shirts and a wide-brimmed hat when you’re on the court or at the very least, a hat with a bill. Plus, you have a dark complexion. Any idea how your melanoma happened?

My doctors said it came from childhood.  When I was growing up in Albuquerque I maybe slapped on a little lotion, but like everybody I mostly used Baby Oil in those days.  Who thinks of putting anything on the backs of their arms? I sure didn’t.

What followed the first surgery?  

Three more procedures. Each time they took out another chunk. After the fourth procedure, I had a PET scan to see how much if any the cancer had spread.  You drink this concoction—it’s not your typical milkshake, ha-ha—and then they place you in a tunnel-like tube and scan your whole body.  

How long does that take?

I’m not sure.  They play a little music, you put yourself in a Zen state and do mental activities. I counted from a hundred backwards.  

Was that all?

The last procedure, on August 7, was done by Mark Arredondo, a surgeon in the oncology department at Presbyterian Hospital. He left me with a serious scar on the back of my arm.  About 20-30 stitches, maybe 10-12 inches long.  As an extra precaution, I sent my records to Jack Kennedy’s son-in-law, Scott Dinehart, a dermatologist affiliated with the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences in Little Rock.  He said that everything I had done was on target.

Do people ask to see your scar?

Some do, but I’m kind of reluctant.    

In addition to covering up, and using a sunscreen, what else do you as a precaution?  

Get check-ups.  I used to go to a dermatologist twice a year. Now I go every three months.  My dermatologist, Barbara Einhorn, is a tiny woman and she gets up on a stool to examine me. Oh, and I also bought some Cool Bar clothing.  Cool Bar sells lightweight long-sleeve shirts with a collar and without a collar. The shirts are SPF50.  If I am going to be out on the court a lot that day, I wear warm-up pants, also SPF 50.  Some days I kind of look like a mummy.

I’ve often seen photos of Nick Bollettieri coaching young tennis players and he’s not wearing a shirt or hat. He’s got a deep tan.  As far as I know he hasn’t had skin cancer. Why not?

I’ve thought about that a thousand times. I see girls at the Coleman Vision tournament with bare shoulders playing under the strong New Mexico sun.  I worry and hope they’ve covered up.  I do know pros who work in high altitudes, like Denver or Salt Lake City. Some of them have had no problems, other than leathery skin. Healthwise, they’re OK. I am always amazed by that. There’s no explaining it.

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