Sun safety 101

Posted by on June 22, 2012 at 11:25 pm.

I love the sunshine. I get as much of it as I can, hiking, biking, swimming, rowing or just lounging around outdoors. I’ve got a pretty dark complexion, and nothing more than the odd freckle. I never really thought much about sunscreen.

A couple years ago I made a thousand-kilometre trek, on foot, through Israel. It was hard work, took three months and slathering on the lotion wasn’t always on my mind.

Last summer, when my partner noticed a freckle high up on my thigh was changing shape and colour I shrugged it off. After all I was just 25. And I’m not fair-skinned. And besides, I never wear shorts that short.

Still, after some persistence, I agreed to show it to a doctor. I expected him to tell me I had nothing to worry about, it was normal, take two aspirin, move on with my life.

What did happen surprised me. Within a week the freckle was removed and sent to a lab in Kingston. Within two weeks I was given the spine-shaking news that the cute little freckle was in fact a melanoma and that it may not have been completely removed.

A second incision and a couple of nail-nibbling months later, a dermatologist tells me I’m clean and that I should wear sunscreen, then turns to congratulate my partner on saving my butt.

Had that freckle gone unnoticed, it would have done me in.

‘Wear sunscreen.’ Young people in Canada have heard that mantra countless times in countless ways. It’s advice almost as wellknown and just as solid as ‘stay in school.’

The Hastings-Prince Edward branch of the Canadian Cancer Society has been participating in putting out that message.

Volunteers have been going around to schools and youth clubs like the Brownies and Scouts with a campaign called SunSense to teach youngsters the importance of sun safety. The campaign reminds kids to “slip, slap and slop”: slip on a t-shirt, slap on a hat and slop on the sunscreen when they’re playing outside.

“A tanned skin is not a healthy skin,” says Kay Quirt, volunteer engagement coordinator at the Hastings-Prince Edward Canadian Cancer Society office. “A tanned skin is a damaged skin. And that’s what I don’t think [young people] get, as far as in the big picture.

And kids at play are not the only people at risk. Anyone who works outside in the summer should protect themselves from excess sun exposure.

“I was at a clinic in Toronto not too long ago and they were referring to one type of cancer as farmer’s cancer,” says Quirt. “The top of the ears, the side of the ears, areas that are exposed but people don’t think about it.Weathered skin is tough but it can still burn.”

There are some basic tips for anyone who wants to enjoy the sunshine this summer. Wear widebrimmed hats and loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts. Keep out of the sun between noon and 2 p.m., and seek shade between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. And don’t forget the sunscreen. Quirt says the biggest mistake people make, young or old, is applying one layer of sunblock in the morning, then forgetting about it. Sunscreen will lose its potency in the course of the day, especially on swimmers.

Along with farmers, Quirt lists construction workers, flagmen, crossing guards, camp councillors and lifeguards, among others, as being high-risk.

Quirt helps get the message out there but there’s no guarantee it’s catching on. It’s hard to get a young person to think about the future when there’s fun to be had in the sun.

Even Quirt has had a skin cancer scare. When a doctor removed a carcinoma from her face, it took her by surprise.

“I had said to the surgeon, I’m the person who doesn’t even cut the grass without sunscreen on my face,” says Quirt. “He said, oh, my dear, that started a long time ago. Probably when I was a kid and had sunburn, because there wasn’t sunscreen when I was a kid. It was something you’d never think of.”

Quirt’s story, like mine, is exactly the reason we tell kids to wear sunscreen. Neither of us thought about it until a doctor told us we had skin cancer.

So take the message to heart. Pass it on. The UV index is already hitting high, so get out that lotion and spread it where the sun shines.

Leave a Reply