Truth, justice and - sun protection? 'Superhero' derm tackles cancer

Feb 01, 2008, 5:00am

Dr. Lines educates children about skin cancer dressed as a 'superhero' named Captain Cutaneum.

Key Points

Yellow tights, a wide-brimmed blue hat, rock theme music and doing battle with a character known as Basal - not the typical image of a respected dermatologist.

We all know Batman, Spiderman and Superman - but do you know Captain Cutaneum? The secret identity of that cancer-fighting "superhero" is Ruskin Lines, M.D., a Gilbert, Ariz., dermatologist whose Arizona roots date back to the 1900s.

It didn't take many years in practice before Dr. Lines got tired of hearing patients complain that they had never known about the dangers of exposing their skin for those "gorgeous" suntans while growing up.

But there was one big problem to surmount - tanning teenagers have a tendency to consider themselves invincible.

"By the time children hit puberty, they become more influenced by the appearance of the tan, and quickly learn that being tanned is the look they like. Teenagers have a harder time hearing the message, so the ideal time to reach potential skin cancer victims is before they reach puberty," Dr. Lines tells Dermatology Times.

When Dr. Lines' children came home from elementary school naming the various types of cloud formations, he realized if they could learn the difference between cumulus and cirrus, they should certainly be capable of distinguishing basal cell, squamous cell and melanoma lesions - something that could save their lives.

The captain is born

But how do children learn? What do they identify with?

"I just thought it would be fun to visit schools dressed in a 'super suit' as a comic book-style character," Dr. Lines says.

Acknowledging that this might not be commonly perceived as "fun" by most dermatologists, Dr. Lines explains that it seemed only natural for him. His mother was an actress and his father was an orthodontist.

"Throughout medical school and residency, my artistic pursuits were put on hold, and I've been looking for ways to reintroduce them into my career. I was in a rock band in high school and college. In medical school, I made video presentations for the hospital channel.

"My colleagues would give me a hard time because they would be in a hospital room treating a patient and look up at the television, and there would be the in-house closed circuit station airing some strange program where I would be dressed up in a costume doing goofball things. They really wondered about me," he says.

Dr. Lines first thought about reaching kids through a comic book, and had no idea what he was getting into.

"I asked an artist how big a comic book was. When he told me 32 pages, I said, 'We should just do that.' The artist laughed and said it was way too much work, but I just couldn't comprehend that.

"Bottom line? I drew up sketches of the original Captain Cutaneum comic book, but couldn't get him or any other artists terribly excited about my deadlines. So, I wound up more or less doing the whole thing myself - 120 images, which were really little tiny portraits. It was a lot of work!"

Dr. Lines released his first Captain Cutaneum comic book at the 2006 American Academy of Dermatology meeting, and the reception was such that he decided book No. 2 was warranted.

"I wised up, however, and found an artist who would work with me. I submitted sketches, and he would pretty them up with his computer animation, color, shadowing. I still did a good bit, and now we're working on No. 3," he says.

"Our goal is to make everybody just a little bit smarter about skin cancer.

"When I tell a patient he has basal cell carcinoma, and he asks, 'What's that?'- there's a problem."