When I was a kid, getting sunburned was a summer rite of passage. I wore sunscreen (at least most of the time), but I rarely stopped to reapply it or worry about whether it had washed off in the ocean. I loved being outdoors, and at least once a summer I got a painful burn after a day at the pool or the beach. I didn’t think much of it. Aloe vera or a T-shirt cover-up sufficed.
It took a melanoma scare in my early 30s for me to understand just how dangerous the sun can be—and to get serious about protecting myself.
Skin Cancer Facts
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S. According to the American Cancer Society, more skin cancers are diagnosed in this country each year than all other cancers combined. One in five Americans will be affected over the course of their lifetime—and rates have been rising for the past 30 years.
Melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, often resembles a mole and sometimes develops from an existing mole that changes in shape or appearance. It’s usually caused by intense, occasional ultraviolet (UV) exposure from the sun—the kind that can lead to sunburn. Tanning lamps/beds also can be a source of dangerous UV exposure, so their use is highly discouraged.
Though melanoma accounts for only about 1 percent of skin cancers, it’s one of the most common cancers diagnosed in young people, especially young women. While fair-skinned Caucasians are at a higher risk, skin cancer affects people of every race and skin type. Not all physicians are aware of this, which is one reason people of color who develop skin cancer tend to be diagnosed at a later stage.
The good news is that you can do a lot to protect yourself and your family from UV rays, plus 90 percent of melanoma occurrences can be cured if discovered early. This is the one form of cancer with symptoms are visible on the outside of your body, if you know what to look for. That’s why it’s important to talk with your doctor and see a dermatologist.
My Wake-Up Call
In my early teens, our family doctor recommended I see a dermatologist for annual checkups because I had the classic risk profile for skin cancer: a fair Irish complexion with a vast constellation of freckles and moles and a history of sunburns. (Another factor, family history, can increase your melanoma risk two- to eight-fold.)
Having every inch of your skin examined and photographed by strangers is about as awkward as it gets as a teenager, but this routine almost certainly saved my life. I was given a full set of photos after every visit, and I learned to examine my skin for the warning signs, sometimes referred to as ABCDE: if a mole is asymmetrical; if the borders are uneven; if the color is inconsistent; if it’s large in diameter; if its shape is evolving with noticeable changes. It can be hard to check everywhere (your scalp, your back, the bottoms of your feet), so using a mirror or a partner is a big help.
Over the years, I have had several moles removed and biopsied: most were benign; others were a nonthreatening form of carcinoma. Then came the visit when a thankfully sharp-eyed medical resident asked about what appeared to be a new mole on my neck. Although I’d been advised to perform monthly self-exams, I clearly hadn’t been paying close attention: I couldn’t confirm whether it was new or not.
Fortunately, the tiny mark was removed at stage zero, so it hadn’t had a chance to spread. This was my wake-up call to stay vigilant.
Sun Protection 101
- Avoid sun exposure. Staying out of the sun, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV light is strongest, is the best way to protect your skin. For many people who love outdoor leisure or work outdoors, this is not often possible.
- Wear sun-protective clothing. SPF clothing and hats can block up to 98 percent of UV rays while the average T-shirt blocks only about 20 percent. It’s well worth the investment—and with so many brands in the mix these days, it’s possible to cover up and look fashionable.
- Apply sunscreen. Only broad-spectrum sunscreens with SPF 15 and above can claim to reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. It’s recommended that you use at least SPF 30, and it should be labelled “broad-spectrum” and “water-resistant.” I wear sunscreen on my face every day, no matter the time of year, and in summer I use a high SPF product on any exposed skin. Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside, and reapply every 2 hours as well as after swimming or sweating. And don’t skimp: most people use only half or less of the suggested amount.
As summer reaches its peak, make sure you’re doing all you can to protect your skin from lasting—and potentially dangerous—damage.
Elisabeth Flynn is a Philadelphia-based writer and editor, and has spent the last 15 years working in the nonprofit/social innovation sector, including stints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Mazzoni Center, an LGBTQ-focused health and wellness provider.