Prevent melanoma: Don't shrug off sun protection

By Sarah Deveau on June 19, 2012
As a fair-skinned blonde, I’ve always been cautious about sun exposure. Unfortunately, like most people in the 1980s, my parents weren’t so diligent. While there are plenty of photographs of my younger brother and I enjoying the beach as children, there’s not a single one in which we are wearing hats or sunglasses. Instead, we sport tans and the occasional burn.

A few years ago, my brother had a large mole removed over concerns that it might be melanoma. It’s the most deadly form of skin cancer. “Melanoma is one of the fastest-growing cancers worldwide,” says David Barnard, Executive Director of Save Your Skin Foundation. “It is one of the most frequently diagnosed cancers in Canada, affecting 5,500 people in 2011 and causing 950 deaths.” Save Your Skin is determined to eliminate melanoma through research and education, including promoting the ABCDE guide to detecting melanoma, which advises checking moles for:
  • Asymmetry 
  • Irregular Border
  • Colour variation
  • Diameter growth
  • Evolution
My brother knew the warning signs, and took steps to protect his skin.

I wasn’t as lucky. When persistent acne on the side of my nose plagued me through my second and third pregnancies, I used the topical creams suggested by two different doctors, to no avail. Finally, after weaning my youngest daughter, I insisted on an appointment with a dermatologist. I expected to receive a prescription for stronger medication.

Instead, I lay on the dermatologist’s chair while he injected a freezing agent into my nose before scraping off a sample. An hour later, I had painful stitches on my face and an appointment to undergo laser surgery to remove what wasn’t acne at all, but skin cancer – basal cell carcinoma (BCC) to be exact. Reverberating in my head were the words “potentially disfiguring.”

The most common type of skin cancer, BCC is experienced at some point by one in three Canadians and is predominantly caused by sun exposure early in life. The warning signs of BCC and the related squamous cell cancer, are easy to miss, as these cancers can appear as a rough patch of skin, a small nodule or a sore that doesn’t heal.

“There were 74,100 new cases of non-melanoma skin cancer in Canada in 2011 – this includes both squamous cell carcinomas and basal cell carcinomas,” says Dr. Denise Wexler, a dermatologist in London, Ont. “Any non-healing skin lesion should be seen by a family physician and referred to a dermatologist if needed. Non-melanoma skin cancers can range from flesh coloured to pink, can be smooth with tiny blood vessels on the surface or scaling and crusted. They often bleed spontaneously.”

Three months later I underwent Mohs, or microscopically controlled surgery named for the doctor who developed it. The affected area was frozen and the cancer removed by laser in three excruciatingly painful rounds. Two days later I underwent reconstructive surgery. The healing process was uncomfortable and embarrassing, with ugly scabbing that lasted for months. When it finally healed, the side of my nose was bright red and no longer symmetrical.

I’ve become a zealot when it comes to protecting my three daughters (and other children!) from sun exposure. Sometimes other parents wave off my concerns, claiming “they need their vitamin D.” I used to think that, too. Now I know that the Canadian Dermatology Association has stated that only very brief amounts of sun exposure is required to maintain optimal vitamin D levels.

“Most people receive enough UVB from the sun to enable Vitamin D synthesis simply by going about their daily activities especially during spring and summer months,” says Dr. Wexler. “During the winter, those concerned about vitamin D levels can take 1,000 units of vitamin D supplements a day. I would never suggest improving vitamin D production by tanning, as this increases the risk of skin cancer.”

David Barnard agrees. “There are many options for light breathable sun-safe clothing, organic sunscreens, and natural vitamin D sources. It’s never been easier to protect oneself from harmful UV rays.”

When I look in the mirror I’m reminded of the importance of protecting my children from sun exposure and detecting skin cancer in the early stages. I hope my story will serve as a reminder for you to protect your children from sun exposure. 

Be skin savvy

If you’re worried about your skin but don’t know where to begin, visit myskincheck.ca.

This online public health campaign, developed by La Roche-Posay and an international team of dermatologists, has several handy features, including a quiz that helps you identify your personal risk of developing skin cancer. It offers tips to help you evaluate your moles and a mole tracker so you can monitor any changes of your moles. Includes sun sensible tips and a dermatologist finder.

Got teens?

Watch Dear 16-Year-Old Me, a video produced by the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund, at dcmf.ca. Full of stories from skin cancer survivors, the video provides a dose of reality for sun-lovin’ youth.

Keep basal cell carcinoma at bay

Research shows that much of the damage to skin is done in the first 18 years of life. Protecting skin and eyes during this time can reduce the risk of some types of skin cancer by up to 78 percent. Practise the following tips, courtesy of SaveYourSkin.ca, to ensure your children are protected:
  • Keep your baby in the shade. Unprotected baby skin can sunburn in 10 minutes or less. A bad sunburn in a small infant can be very serious and have lifelong consequences. 
  • Before the age of three, keep sun exposure to a minimum. Sunscreen does not provide adequate protection.
  • After age three, use sunscreen with an SPF of 15+ or highter. You may think a tan looks healthy, but it is is an outward sign of internal skin damage.
Calgary writer Sarah Deveau is a frequent contributor to ParentsCanada and mother to three sunscreen-slathered daughters. She is thankful for sun hats and UV swimwear.

Originally published in ParentsCanada, July 2012

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