Protect Yourself: Skin Cancer Isn't Just Something That Happens to Someone Else

As an outdoorsman, hunter or angler, your biggest danger might just be an old friend — the sun. Here’s how to protect yourself from America’s No. 1 cancer.

Protect Yourself: Skin Cancer Isn't Just Something That Happens to Someone Else

Wear those large-brimmed hats and long-sleeved shirts too. The more you can protect yourself against the sun, the better off you’ll be in the long run. Photo: iStock

Growing up, my generation never gave skin cancer a second thought.

Use sunblock? Heck no! Instead we were told to grease up with cocoa butter and try and get the ultimate tan. For someone who has spent a lifetime outdoors in the sun, those chickens have come home to roost for me. My blue-eyed, fair-skinned face has had six basal cell carcinomas surgically removed in the last few years, with more undoubtedly on the way. 

The skin is made of a variety of cells, many of which are in constant motion. Round basal cells below the surface flatten as they rise to replace dead, flaking squamous cells on the surface. Melanocytes tan the skin in the sunlight, and Merkel cells give skin its ability to sense touch. When these cells become damaged, they may develop into skin cancer.

There are three basic types of skin cancer: basal cell, squamous cell and melanoma. Basal cell is the least dangerous and accounts for at least 50 percent of all skin cancers. Squamous cell cancers account for another 20 percent. While all cancers are dangerous, these are the least invasive, though they should be treated immediately. The most dangerous form of skin cancer is melanoma, which is extremely dangerous and can spread to the lymph nodes.

Skin Cancer Cases Are Rising

Skin cancer statistics are frightening. 

According to the American Cancer Society, each year there are more new cases of skin cancer than new cases of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer combined. One in every five Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime. And the culprit is well known: 90 percent of basal and squamous cell cancers and 86 percent of melanoma cases are linked to sun exposure, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation

For those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time outdoors, the solution is simple.

“I have always promoted the importance of sunscreen to my patients,” Dr. Duane Mortensen, my dermatologist, told me. “Wear those stupid-looking, large-brimmed hats and long-sleeved shirts, too. The more you can protect yourself, the better off you’ll be in the long run.” 

What You Need to Know About Sunscreen

OK, go grab some sunblock at Walmart and use it, no problem, right? But sunblock, while effective, is often misunderstood — from what types to buy to how to apply.

Here’s what you need to know about sunscreen. 

  • How much to apply. Wear sunblock whenever you’re outdoors, regardless of the weather and your skin tone: Apply an ounce of sunblock 30 minutes before going outdoors, as recommended by the American Cancer Society. As much as 40 percent of the sun’s UV rays reach the earth on overcast days. 
  • Skin cancer doesn’t discriminate. Melanoma survival rates among African Americans tend to be significantly lower than white Americans, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.
  • Reapply sunblock after getting wet or sweating. Waterproof sunblock doesn’t exist, since they all need to be reapplied after getting wet or swimming. According to new FDA guidelines, if a sunblock is marketed as water resistant, it must be able to claim to protect you for 40 or 80 minutes after getting wet or sweating. 
  • Not all sun blocks protect you from UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays age your skin, weaken the immune system and damage DNA. UVB rays are linked with skin cancer. Many sunblocks provide protection against one but not the other. Only products labeled as broad spectrum can protect you from both because they have either zinc oxide (experts’ ingredient of choice), titanium oxide or 3 percent avobenzone with octocrylene in its ingredients. 
  • Aerosol spray-on sun blocks often don’t provide the same level of protection as a lotion. It’s difficult to gauge the amount of spray you’ve used and whether or not you’re thoroughly covered. Inhaling fumes can also be a concern.
  • Carefully read sunblock labels. Begin by checking the expiration date. Most sunblocks are only effective for two or three years. Next, check the SPF level. Many people are willing to spend a lot of money on sunblocks with high levels of SPF thinking they’ll get significantly more protection from UVB rays. That’s not quite accurate. A block with SPF 15 screens out about 93 percent of UVB rays; SPF 30 filters about 97 percent, SPF 50 protects 98 percent and SPF 100 blocks about 99 percent. Select a SPF level that best suits your needs and wallet. 
  • In addition to sunblock. As Dr. Mortensen told me, in addition to using sunblock, wearing tightly-woven, loosely-fitted long sleeve shirts and pants and those “stupid hats” can reduce up to 27 percent of your sunburn risk. Wearing sun-protection clothing, sold at many sporting good and outdoor stores, also helps. Additionally, UV-blocking sunglasses and contact lenses also can help. And when outdoors, seek shade, whether it be a tree, umbrella or tent. 

Today I carefully check my face, neck, ears and scalp daily in search of new or changing moles or lesions. If I find something suspicious, I call my dermatologist for an appointment on top of my regular 6-month checkup. It’s also a good idea to start your kids out early with a regular sunblock routine.

I dearly love the sun, but I wish I’d known about its dangers when I was a puppy. That’s my excuse. You don’t have one. Because, believe me, having carcinomas cut off your body is no fun at all.

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