As the sun cornered the east horizon, 70-year-old Capt. Bruce Humbert guided the hull of his 19-foot Sea Pro boat off its trailer at the Wappoo Cut Boat Landing.
Humbert has been fishing the Charleston waters for more than 50 years, and after retiring from a quarter-century of pipefitting at the Charleston Naval Shipyard, he decided to start offering fishing charters.
Since becoming a guide, Humbert has acquired a reputation as one of the top sheepshead anglers in the Lowcountry. He won the Charleston Inshore Anglers Sheepshead Tournament in 2012.
Over the years, Humbert’s love for fishing Charleston’s backcountry creeks and rivers has never waned. But after numerous serious battles with skin cancer, he has re-evaluated his priorities when it comes to fishing.
These days, Humbert can be seen sporting long-sleeve shirts, long pants, closed-toed shoes and a wide-brimmed hat. The skipper’s protective outfit became a necessity after a lifetime of working under the sun left his skin ravaged by cancers from his face all the way down to the heal of his right foot.
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, with about 2 million cases diagnosed each year. Over the past 30 years, more people have contracted skin cancer than all other forms of cancer combined, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation (skincancer.org).
Skin cancer is almost always a direct result of excessive sun exposure. The disease should be a serious concern for boat captains, avid fishermen and other outdoor professionals according to Dr. Kenneth Warrick of the Dermatology and Laser Center of Charleston.
“People who spend a significant amount of time outdoors are far more susceptible to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays,” Dr. Warrick said. “The more ultraviolet exposure you have, the more damage caused to your skin and your immune system; therefore, the risk of skin cancer increases.
The three major types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma are more common and less dangerous then melanoma cancer, Warrick said. Melanoma incidences have increased 800 percent for women and 400 percent for men over the past four decades — a “violent rate,” according to Warrick.
Melanoma, which is considered the most serious of the skin cancers, is a condition that Humbert is all too familiar with.
“I’ve had four melanomas: One on my face, one on my shoulder, one on my arm, and one on my right foot. My doctor said they grew over time, from my many years in the sun,” Humbert said.
“I wish I had known then what I know now,” he added. “I would have certainly taken preventative measures.”
Despite the advice from doctors who study skin cancer and other boat captains who have suffered through skin cancer, many Lowcountry fishermen fail to acknowledge the health risks involved with excessive sun exposure.
Why don’t we cover up?
Fifty-five-year-old Capt. Rick Hiott, who specializes in catching giant red drum off Charleston, has an answer.
“I believe that the negligence and reluctance of fishermen to take skin cancer preventative measures seriously stems from the ‘hardheadedness’ associated with our fishing culture.
“… This younger generation of captains think it’s cool to get sunburned and have coon eyes,” Hiott said, referencing the tan lines that come from wearing polarized fishing glasses while on the water.
“What’s not cool is this,” he added, pointing to a scar on the right side of his forehead left over from a skin cancer surgery he had last summer.
A few months before that surgery, Hiott had noticed a “little pinkish dot” about the size of a pen’s point on his forehead. His doctors identified the dot to be cancerous and removed it, leaving Hiott with eight stitches and a black eye.
Another little pinkish dot now looms just above his eyebrow. “I haven’t had this one checked out yet,” he said.
Humbert’s bout with skin cancer may be even more serious.
In addition to four melanomas (all of which led to operations), Humbert has a basal cell cancer on his nose that he treats with a radioactive cream that peels off the cancerous skin layer by layer from his nose. “I always look like Rudolf,” Humbert joked.
On average, one out of every five people will contract skin cancer over a lifetime—a statistic that becomes greatly heightened for avid fishermen and boat captains who, like Humbert and Hiott, spend their lives on the water.
Still, fishermen who work in the sun on a daily basis don’t have to become victims of skin cancer.
“If you are in the sun on a daily basis, it is vital to take preventative measures such as wearing broad-brimmed hats, tightly woven (dark) clothing, and applying sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or greater every couple of hours,” Warrick said.
Getting routine check-ups is also important. “Patients with high-risk occupations should get checked for skin cancer every six months,” Warrick warned. “This is especially true because the most common place for melanomas is on the back, and you can’t check that yourself.”
Warrick recommends that between visits, anglers stay on the lookout for irregular blemishes on their skin.
Skin cancer can appear in many different forms, but some of the more common visual signs are pink, scaly dots on areas most exposed to the sun. Other basal cell cancers can appear translucent or brownish in color. Melanomas can range from colorless to black, and they usually have irregular, jagged-like boarders.
“Patients should also be mindful of new discolored moles because varied mole pigment can quickly turn to melanoma,” added Warrick.