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Preventive Maintenance: Avoiding skin cancer

Summertime and the living is easy - it's easy to understand why most people look forward to this time of year. After a tough week, there's nothing like enjoying a relaxing day in the sun to recharge y...

Karen Bowen

Karen Bowen

Summertime and the living is easy – it’s easy to understand why most people look forward to this time of year. After a tough week, there’s nothing like enjoying a relaxing day in the sun to recharge your batteries and build up a little extra Vitamin D in your body.

Sure, a little sun is good for your health, but don’t overdo it. Acording to a new study from the World Health Organization, nearly 60,000 people worldwide die from skin cancer caused by too much sun every year.

Skin cancer rates are increasing; anyone born today has a one in seven risk of developing skin cancer during his or her lifetime and nearly 50% of people over the age of 65 have had some form of skin cancer.

Yet, the skin cancer rate in Canada has been fairly constant for the past 30 years.

Nonetheless, long-term exposure to UV rays can cause sunburn, tanning, premature skin aging, cataracts, as well as skin cancer, especially if you have light-coloured skin, eyes and hair.

As well, your risk is higher if you had several blistering sunburns as a child and/or have a family history of skin cancer. Be cautious if you work, play or exercise in the sun for long periods of time.

These are the three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and malignant melanoma.

In Canada, most cases of skin cancer are either basal or squamous cell carcinoma.

These are more common for truck drivers because they form on skin that has been exposed repeatedly to the sun, such as the face, neck, or hands (and arms that rest outside the driver’s side window).

These usually develop later in life and progress slowly, rarely causing death because they usually don’t spread to other parts of the body and are easily removed by surgery.

However, malignant melanomas are different.

Even though they account for only 1-2% of all skin cancers, they are most likely to be fatal.

Unlike other skin cancers, they develop on almost any part of the body earlier in life and progress rapidly.

Fortunately, most cases of skin cancer are preventable. Reduce your risk by taking these steps:

Don’t use a sunlamp. (Note: Some medications make your skin more sensitive to UV rays, so talk to your doctor about any medications you’re taking.)

When you’re outside, stay in the shade as much as possible.

Limit your time in the midday sun (1 p.m.-3 p.m.) when UV rays are most intense. Wear protective clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and clothing with a tight weave, including a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, gloves and sunglasses.

If you can’t cover up, use a sunscreen lotion and don’t skimp. Apply sunscreen liberally to exposed skin 15 to 30 minutes before going out in the sun, followed by a re-application 15 to 30 minutes after sun exposure begins. Rub it in, so your skin absorbs it well. Don’t forget to put some extra on your sensitive areas, such as your nose, ears, lips, and exposed scalp. Additionally, use a lip protector with sunscreen all day long. Put more on after any vigorous activity that could remove the sunscreen, such as swimming, toweling or excessive sweating.

This summer, there are a lot of sunscreen products to choose from: spray, stick, gel, and lotion. Just be sure to get one with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 15 with both UVA and UVB protection. The SPF of a product tells you how much time you can stay in the sun without your skin burning, compared to being in the sun without protection.

If the product label says ‘SPF 15,’ this means that you can stay in the sun 15 times longer without burning than you would be able to without protection. ‘SPF 30’ and ‘SPF 45’ products block more than 96% of the sun’s UV rays. Even though they block the harmful UV rays, they do wear off, so it is very important to reapply them frequently.

To be sure you get this broad-spectrum protection, read the sunscreen label. It should include some of these ingredients: benzophenones (oxybenzone), cinnamates (octylmethyl cinnamate and cinoxate), sulisobenzone, salicylates, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, and avobenzone (Parsol 1789).

Unfortunately, skin cancer still happens. If you’re worried about a mole, birthmark, beauty mark, or spot, see your doctor if it has changed shape, colour, size or surface. As well, talk to you doctor if you have a sore that does not heal, new growths on your skin, or patches of skin that bleed, ooze, swell, itch or become red or bumpy. They could be signals of something serious.

So, be careful and enjoy the healthy summer glow that comes from catching a few rays.

– Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant and she can be reached by e-mail at

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