I love our old friend, the sun, as much as any other survivor of a long and often gloomy western Washington winter/early spring. When that big, brilliant star comes out to play, I greet it with open arms and a smile on my face. My soggy spirits lift as I gravitate to activities in the great outdoors. Life, warm and bright beneath those beaming rays, just feels so good.
And yet I can never quite forget that the sun has a dark and dangerous side.
Blame my sun-wary attitude on the four-inch-long scar crossing my upper left thigh, a memento of my frightening brush with malignant melanoma. I was only twenty-eight years old at the time—and incredibly lucky. The cancer was caught early and surgery took care of it, no chemo required.
And I lived. Unlike far too many other victims of this deadliest of skin cancers.
The statistics are sobering. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), one in five people in the U.S. will develop skin cancer in their lifetime and nearly twenty people die from melanoma every day. The two other main types of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, may not be as aggressive and dangerous, but they can be disfiguring (think surgery scars) and deadly, too, if left untreated. And even a “mild” brush with cancer is scary and painful.
My husband, Brett, who has his own scar memento from squamous cell carcinoma treatment, can vouch for this as well.
The bad news for giddy sun worshippers? Most skin cancers are caused by the sun’s stealthy ultraviolet (UV) rays and the resulting damage to our skin cells’ DNA that accumulates over years.
The good news? This means most skin cancers are also preventable.
It’s never too late for us to start protecting our skin. The following sun-savvy strategies, recommended by dermatologists and cancer organizations, are ones I embraced soon after my melanoma diagnosis and treatment (by doctor’s orders). Not only do they help prevent skin cancer, but they also help keep our body’s largest organ healthier and younger-looking—no legendary fountain of youth required.
Don’t let the sun burn you. That vivid red sunburn is your skin’s painful inflammatory response to the serious harm inflicted by intense UV rays. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, five or more sunburns more than doubles a person’s risk of developing melanoma. Although I’ll never know for sure, I suspect those times I fried myself in the summer sun as a teen may have contributed to my own.
Just say no to tanning (outdoors and in). Dermatologists have been preaching this one for a long time, and yet I still see people purposely browning themselves in the sun. Sorry to be a Debbie Sun-Downer, but tanning—whether done outside on the beach or inside on a tanning bed—damages and ages our skin and increases our risk of skin cancer, too. Period. If a sun-bronzed look is important to you, opt for a sunless tanning lotion instead.
Avoid exposing your skin to the sun when UV rays are strongest, between about 10 a.m and 4 p.m. I confess that this one’s hard for me. I’m not an early morning exercise person, and I love nothing better than to spend a glorious afternoon running, hiking, bicycling, or gardening outdoors. But when I do go outside on days of intense sun, I stick to the shade whenever possible. I also double-up on the next two strategies.
Suit up for sun protection. Covering your vulnerable skin with protective clothing is a great way to keep from burning. My go-to hiking attire, for instance, includes a tightly-woven, long-sleeved sun shirt and pants, and I usually slip on sun sleeves while bicycling. After a long snorkeling day in Hawaii left me with a memorably painful burn last year, I even invested in a long-sleeved swim shirt and swim shorts. Keep in mind that fabrics vary in how well they block UV rays; if you spend a lot of time outdoors, consider purchasing apparel made to offer extra sun protection. Oh, and don’t forget a hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.
Slather on sunscreen. Sometimes it’s not practical or safe to cover up with clothes—think swimming, or running on a hot day. Enter that miraculous lotion, sunscreen. The AAD recommends using a broad spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and reapplying it every two hours or after swimming/sweating. A broad spectrum sunscreen protects against UVA and UVB rays, which can both can harm your skin and boost your skin cancer risk. Keep in mind that sunscreen isn’t just for warm, sunny days. The sun’s rays reach us on cloudy or hazy days as well, and even through glass. Remember these rays can also pack a powerful punch when they reflect off snow, water, sand, or concrete.
Check your skin regularly and know what to look for. The Skin Cancer Foundation advises people to check their skin monthly and see a dermatologist once a year for a skin exam. As I discovered, early detection is vital—when caught early, most skin cancers are highly curable. While surveying your skin, be alert for the “Big 3” (learn more about self exam at https://thebigsee.org/) : any new moles or blemishes; any spots that have an unusual outline or continue to itch, hurt, crust, or bleed for more than three weeks; and any existing moles that have changed in shape, color, size, or texture.
In my case, it was the latter that sent me scurrying to my doctor: a small, existing mole which had grown slightly into a weird, oblong shape of a lighter color. If you notice anything of concern, go see your doctor ASAP.
Needless to say, I’m so glad I didn’t procrastinate.