25 May Skin cancer protection tips to keep you safe outdoors
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Hearing the diagnosis “melanoma” changes your life
Here are my credentials for writing this article. I’m age 65 and have already had basil cell, squamous cell and the more dangerous malignant melanoma skin cancers, all eye and ear level on my face. I now get checked frequently, which will continue for the rest of my life. So I’ve spent a lot time with dermatologists and peppered them with questions about reducing my risk.
The cancers were caught early, so my prognosis is good. I also love Mother Nature who continues to lure me into the sun and her great outdoors, which means I need to deploy a variety of strategies to avoid harmful rays.
I’ll keep this article light on statistics. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in US, increasing significantly among white men and women. Melanomas are the most serious type because they can spread quickly to other organs with deadly results.
I can’t undo the harm from my boyhood years when scouting, hunting, fishing and working outside caused most of my skin damage. But ever since my first melanoma at age 32, I’ve been vigilant at balancing my love for travel with my passion for good health. I hope some of these tips keep you safe.
My dermatologist encouraged me to begin wearing Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) clothing, especially long sleeve shirts. I initially didn’t think protective wear was very fashionable but it has improved over the years. But quite frankly, rocking the fashion world while I’m outside isn’t important anymore – melanomas tend to change priorities.
When shopping, I look for UPF 50, which means the fabric of the garment only allows 1/50th (2%) of the UV radiation to pass through it. A shirt rated UPF 25 would allow 4% of the UV rays.
I’ve also become a big hat guy. Yes, I mean “big” with wide brims that protect my scalp, forehead, nose, ears and eyes – the locations of my former skin cancers. I prefer Outdoor Research (OR) hats because they make a line with very wide brims.
Sunglasses with UV protection are a must. The sun’s radiation can damage your eyelids, cornea, lenses and other parts of your eyes, plus UV rays are linked to cataracts. And if vanity is important to you, good fitting UV sunglasses can help prevent wrinkles at the corner of your eyes.
Time of day
We hike and enjoy the outdoors by starting out early in the morning, especially in overcrowded areas so we can avoid the vacation hordes. We often finish our hikes by noon, which means I’m not exposed to the sun when its rays are the strongest. And if we take a break during our hike, we always find shade.
We never skip a trip or destination just to avoid the more direct sunlight of the day, but we do factor timing into our itinerary. During some adventures, I’m exposed to sunlight all day long, from dawn to dusk. Then I just make sure to reapply my sunscreen at least once or twice during the trek.
Use sunscreen without oxybenzone
My best advice is simple – use sunscreen. But don’t act like you’re invincible once you’ve lathered it on. People should always be concerned with the amount of sun they’re exposed to during the day. Sunscreen doesn’t give you superpowers.
Read up on sunscreens. Personally, I use SPF50 that has water-resistant qualities. In addition, I don’t buy any product containing oxybenzone, which causes coral bleaching and kills ocean coral by damaging its DNA.
Get your body checked
After sharing my skin cancer experience on Facebook, a handful of my friends immediately made appointments with their doctors. Several reported back that their visit led to the removal of pre-cancerous spots and actual skin cancers. So despite my private nature, I was glad I posted my history – it had the effect I intended.
Since being diagnosed with melanomas, I now get a full-body check every six months from my dermatologist. Between appointments, I keep an eye on myself and log notes into my smartphone about any suspicious or changing spots. Because once I’ve stripped and the exam begins, I occasionally forget about some of my concerns and later regret the memory lapse. So my phone list helps.
Also, take charge during your exam. I respect my current dermatologist because she listens and includes me in the decision of whether or not to remove something. In the past, with a different doctor, I had to insist on having two spots removed. He wasn’t concerned about either, but I was. Both pathology reports came back with the diagnosis of “cancer,” one a melanoma near my right eye.
Yes, at my urging, he also removed several benign spots over the years that made me nervous. However, for me, it’s all about personal chemistry and confidence so I found a new dermatologist that listens while also taking charge.
Be mindful of sun-sensitizing medications
Simple advice – ask your pharmacist if any of the medications you’re taking will make your skin more sensitive to the sun’s harmful rays. If the answer is “yes,” ask about alternatives or about the timing of taking those meds and going outdoors.
I’m not including a review on tanning beds in this article because, quite frankly, the jury of science has exposed their harmfulness a long time ago. Don’t use them.
Be vigilant, relax and enjoy the outdoors
It helps to have a spouse or intimate friend who can help watch your body for changes. But ultimately it’s my burden to be responsible. I love the great outdoors and keep planning on new places to explore. You might run into me sometime – I’m the guy with the big-rimmed hat, shiny face and happy-to-be alive smile on my face.
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