Prevent melanoma: Don’t shrug off sun protection

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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