Since I was diagnosed with skin cancer in 2014, I have spent considerable time trying to learn more about this widespread disease. The words “skin cancer” have more than one connotation, for example, many people think that skin cancer is a minor blemish on the skin that can simply be removed and not thought of again. Others believe it is not a common problem, or that they are not at risk to develop it, or they think it is a disease that happens only in tropical countries.
Patients like myself learn the hard way that skin cancer is neither easy nor unimportant, and it does hit very close to home.
A person is more likely to develop a non-melanoma cancer if they have a family history of skin cancer, have already had skin cancer, or have fair or freckled skin, blue eyes and light-coloured or reddish hair. However, anyone who has had excessive or prolonged and repeated lifetime sun exposure, or severe and frequent sunburns during childhood is at increased risk of developing skin cancer. Those who use immunosuppression drugs following an organ transplant, and other patients with suppressed or weakened immune systems are also at higher risk of non-melanoma cancer.
Although it is impossible to change some of these risk factors, there are ways to reduce skin cancer risk, by decreasing sun exposure, using sunscreen or long-sleeved clothing, avoiding sunburns, having regular skin check-ups, and avoiding tanning lamps and beds.
While sunlight does have health benefits, it is important to take precautions to protect ourselves from potentially harmful UV rays. Here are some tips to protect yourself and your loved ones:
- Always have sunscreen with you so you can apply it if an unplanned outdoor activity arises
- Apply sunscreen at least twenty minutes before going outside
- Use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 whenever you are outdoors (even on cloudy days); in Canada, look for sunscreen that says ”Broad Spectrum” on the label, as that is regulated by Health Canada to provide protection from both UVA and UVB rays
- Use the correct amount of sunscreen – an ounce or golf ball size quantity to cover all exposed skin – even the tops of your ears!
- Lotions or creams are recommended over spray or mist sunscreens, as they provide more thorough coverage. Apply lotion prior to outdoor activity, and then apply sprays or mists as touch-ups to thoroughly protect the skin
- Use lip balm that has a SPF of at least 15
- Wear protective clothing with long sleeves, hats, and full-spectrum sunglasses that protect from UVA and UVB rays
- Limit sun exposure between 10 am and 4 pm
- Do not use tanning beds
During the winter and spring months, it is important to protect yourself while pursuing snow sports, such as skiing, snowboarding, or snowshoeing. The sun’s reflection off of snow can increase the amount of UV radiation you receive by up to 85%. Wearing sunscreen and sunglasses will help protect exposed areas. It is recommended that you take the same precautions during summer water sports.
An SPF30 is the minimum protection recommended, and sunscreen should be applied twenty minutes before heading outdoors to allow for activation time. Remember to reapply every two hours, and after swimming or perspiring.
When you are unsure of the UV strength on a particular day, it is useful to consult the UV index. The UV index is a simplified measurement system for the sun’s damaging rays and a guideline to protection. These are available online and in phone apps.
The UV index measures as follows:
- 0-2 – Low Risk – minimal sun protection required (unless near water or snow). Wear sunglasses if bright
- 3-5 – Moderate Risk – take precautions – wear sunscreen, sunhat, sunglasses, seek shade during peak hours of 11 am to 4 pm
- 6-7 – High Risk – wear sun protective clothing, sunscreen, and seek shade
- 8-10 – Avoid the sun – seek shade – wear sun protective clothing, sun screen & sunglasses. White sand increases UV radiation exposure
- 11 + – Take full precautions. Unprotected skin can burn in minutes. Avoid the sun between 11 am and 4 pm, wear sunscreens & sun protective clothing
Following all of these prevention methods, and teaching the young people in our lives to do the same, will help reduce skin cancer incidence, keeping us safe. As part of a healthy routine, it is also important to thoroughly check our skin from head to toe on a monthly basis, keeping an eye on any irregular or suspicious bumps, markings, lesions or patches on our skin.
Natalie Richardson, mother, writer, melanoma survivor and advocate.