Sun Health: Skin Cancer and Sunburn

Two out of three light skinned people will be diagnosed with skin cancer in our lifetimes. I am one of them. It’s a pretty sobering thing to hear words like chemo, radiation and excision used in the context of one’s own body. May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month which is a perfect time to have this discussion. As boaters we’re at great risk, not only because of the time we spend out in the sun, but also because of the double whammy of exposure we get from above and below. The sun is relentless from overhead and reflected back a second time from the water’s surface. The ol’ one-two punch. Sun health is all about discussing skin cancer and sunburn. It’s about prevention, detection and mitigating the risks any way we can.

Early Sun Exposure Has Lasting Skin Effects

Back in the day, we didn’t know as much about skin cancer and sunburns as we know now. Remember slathering on the baby oil and laying on the hood of a car to get tan? What were we thinking?? As an Irish girl, the most I could have hoped for anyway is that my freckles would run together to look like a tan.

When the science started coming out about the correlation between sun damage and skin cancer, I became a sunscreen nut, militant about its application and reapplication, but the damage was done. Those early-in-life burns come back to haunt us later. It’s more than just sunburn. Skin damage builds up over a lifetime and can turn into premature aging of the skin, dark spots, wrinkles, eye damage as well as skin cancer. Our attempts to reverse the effects of aging are a bazillion dollar industry.

Skin Cancer is The Most Common Type of Cancer

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer. The good news is that it’s the easiest to cure if it’s diagnosed and treated early. Even that nasty bugger melanoma is almost always curable if it’s recognized and attended to early. As it advances and spreads to other parts of the body, it becomes harder to treat and can lead to death. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, “The estimated five-year survival rate for patients whose melanoma is detected early is about 98 percent. The survival rate falls to 64 percent when the disease reaches the lymph nodes and 23 percent when the disease metastasizes to distant organs.” I don’t know about you, but I sure want to be in the 98%!

Averting Skin Cancer and Sunburn

Sun Health: Skin Cancer and Sunburn

The non-itchy “bug bite”.
Photo courtesy Shelly Galligan.

The secrets to averting skin cancer and sunburn, as I see them, are early detection and prevention. Detection is a two-pronged approach and starts with having a yearly skin exam by a physician. The second and equally important prong of detection is performing a monthly self-examination. Give yourself the once over every month looking for new spots or changes in the ones you’ve got. Here’s a guide by the American Cancer Society on how to do so. Learn to do it for yourself and teach your kids so it becomes habit for them too. Kids are even more at risk for sun damage because they tend to be outside more often and for longer periods of time. Pay special attention to those places that get the most sun: the face, ears, neck, lips, and hands. Warning signs can look like: a skin growth, mole, or birthmark that increases in size or thickness, changes color, has an irregular border, or is bigger that the size of a pencil eraser; a sore that doesn’t heal or heals and comes back; sores that continue to itch, hurt, crust, scab, erode or bleed. Here’s a gallery of images to get an idea of what you’re looking for.

Sun Health: Skin Cancer and Sunburn

After surgery.
Photo courtesy Shelly Galligan.

If you have ANY area of concern, follow up with your doctor or a physician who specializes in skin conditions right away! I found my own lesion, on my lower leg. I thought it was a bug bite at first, though it didn’t itch. When it didn’t seem to be resolving, I showed it to my doctor. He thought it was probably nothing, but when I told him that I’m on the water all the time and had never had a thorough skin exam, he heard my concern and referred me to dermatology. It would have been easy for either of us to talk the other out of the concern and do nothing. Listen to your inner knowing, take charge of your healthcare and ask for what you need. If any part of you wants something checked, get it checked! Being fair-skinned there were plenty of freckles and spots to evaluate, several that I would have thought were more concerning than the “bug bite”. The dermatologist biopsied the lesion, though he too wasn’t convinced it was an issue. When the results came back, we were both shocked that it was a squamous cell carcinoma. It was found early and able to be treated. Please join me in the 98% club and get checked!

Prevention’s Name is Sunscreen

Skin Cancer and Sunburn

Photo courtesy Alex Liivet on flickr.

If the secret of everything is prevention, prevention’s name is sunscreen. There are two kinds of rays: UVA (aging) and UVB (burning). We need to block both. Beside sunscreen, which we’ll chat about in a jiff, there are other options. Seek shade whenever possible, especially during the hottest part of the day. Wear UV protective clothing or tightly woven light colored clothes to reflect the sun and wide brimmed hats to protect the top of the head, especially your part or bald spot.

Sunscreen comes in two flavors, physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens are mineral based (titanium dioxide or zinc oxide) and work by blocking the harmful rays at the surface of the skin. They start working as soon as they are applied, are good for sensitive skin, protect naturally against UVA and UVB, last longer on the skin, and aren’t as damaging to our ocean’s coral reefs. They do tend to feel heavier and leave a white residue.

skin cancer and sunburn

Photo courtesy Skeyndor on flickr.

Chemical sunscreens work by creating a chemical reaction under the skin. They absorb the harmful rays, turn them into heat and release them from the skin. They’re lightweight, and they absorb easily and invisibly. They do, however, take up to 30 minutes to start working, can cause skin irritation and break down more quickly in the sun and must be reapplied often. Some of the ingredients used in certain brands have been proven to be harmful to marine life and ocean reefs. Hawaii and now Key West have banned chemical sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate. If you prefer a chemical sunscreen, please look for those that don’t contain these harmful ingredients.

When using sunscreen use at least an ounce and be careful to apply it everywhere. Don’t forget the tops of the feet, hairline, nose, tops of the shoulders, tops of the ears and the lips, especially when using sprays. Better yet, skip the sprays. They’re messy, expensive, and these chemicals are not meant to be inhaled, sent up your nose or dispersed into the environment. Reapply sunscreen often and use at least an SPF 30 strength product.

If You DO Get Sunburned…

If you do get sunburned and find yourself with redness, pain and possibly blisters and peeling, treatment includes cool, moist compresses; a cool bath; and 100% aloe vera gel topically. Not the creepy green stuff. Look for the real thing. Burn Jel®️, a topical viscous lidocaine, can help to numb the pain. It’s use should be limited to no more than two ounces every four hours. If the burn area is large, mix the Burn Jel®️ with aloe vera to help the two ounces cover more area. Blisters should be left intact if possible. They act as a natural bandage, protect the burn from infection, and the fluid inside the blister helps with healing. Apply a dressing to protect the sunburn from injury and infection. For a large area, the dressing could be as simple as a clean T-shirt. Over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and especially ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) are effective. It’s also important to drink plenty of water to replace the fluids lost from burns.

Please take 10 minutes right now to get familiar with your skin. Report any concerning areas to your physician right away and be vigilant going forward with sun protection to prevent sunburn, skin cancer and any further damage to your skin. Thank you.

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