Optimizing Sun Safety: My Skin Cancer Journey

As Skin Cancer Awareness Month draws to a close and summer approaches, I feel compelled to share my personal story about being diagnosed with skin cancer at the age of 42. My journey has taught me valuable lessons about the importance of sun safety, especially for African Americans who may not have have skin cancer on their radar. 

I was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma, a common form of skin cancer that often goes unnoticed. I had a spot behind my ear that I never paid much attention to. Perhaps it was because it was in an area that I rarely saw or because skin cancer wasn't really on my radar because of my age and race. It took me two years before I had my doctor check it out. 

Being Black and relatively young, I knew to be on the look for Melanoma, but not for other skin cancers. The normal demographic of people with skin cancer shown in text books are of older individuals or those with fair skin. But skin cancers do not discriminate based on age or ethnicity. Whether it is melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, or squamous cell carcinoma, skin cancer can impact anyone, irrespective of their background or skin tone.

Skin cancers can manifest in various ways and may not always conform to the images we associate with the disease.  It is important to dispel the stereotypes and assumptions surrounding skin cancer.  For example, my basal cell carcinoma was pigmented and looked different than the typical descriptions we see in medical books. 

Reflecting on my past habits, I realize that I had unknowingly contributed to the development of skin cancer. During my childhood, I spent my days in the sun without any sun protection.  Then in my teens and 20s, I would frequently tan and and even use tanning beds without fully understanding the long-term consequences. These choices resulted in significant skin damage that would later catch up with me.

It wasn't until I reached the age of 35 that I started using sunblock regularly. Initially, my motivation was to prevent hyperpigmentation and slow down the signs of aging. Little did I know that sunblock would become an essential component of my daily routine to protect against skin cancer.

To effectively protect your skin from the sun's harmful rays, it is important to follow these sun safety guidelines:

  1. Wear Sunblock: Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30 to all exposed areas of your skin, including your face, neck, arms, and legs. Don't forget less obvious areas such as the ears, back of the neck, and tops of the feet.

  2. Apply Adequate Amount: Use enough sunblock to generously cover your skin. As a general rule, aim for approximately one ounce (about a shot glass full) to cover your entire body. Don't skimp on the amount, as using too little may reduce the effectiveness of the protection.

  3. Reapply Regularly: Sunblock should be reapplied every two hours or more frequently if you're sweating or swimming. Remember to reapply after toweling off as well. Even water-resistant sunscreens can lose their effectiveness over time.

  4. Seek Shade: Limit your time in direct sunlight, especially during peak hours when the sun's rays are the strongest. Seek shade under umbrellas, trees, or use a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face and neck.

  5. Wear Protective Clothing: Whenever possible, cover up with lightweight, long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and wide-brimmed hats. Consider clothing with built-in UV protection or use laundry additives that increase the sun protection factor (SPF) of your clothes.

  6. Use Sunglasses: Protect your eyes from UV radiation by wearing sunglasses that offer 100% UV protection. Look for sunglasses labeled with UVA and UVB protection to ensure comprehensive coverage.

Apart from these preventive measures, you should also have regular skin examinations. Schedule an annual skin exam with a dermatologist who can thoroughly evaluate your skin for any abnormalities. They are trained to identify early warning signs of skin cancer and can guide you on the necessary steps for diagnosis and treatment.  If you have a history of skin cancer like me, you may need to get checked more often.  I go twice a year for skin exams since my diagnosis. 

In addition to professional skin exams, it is crucial to be vigilant about self-examinations. Regularly check your skin for any new moles, changes in existing moles, or any unusual spots. Remember the ABCDE rule for evaluating moles: asymmetry, border irregularity, color variation, diameter larger than a pencil eraser, and evolving shape or size.

By practicing diligent sun protection and embracing the habit of regular skin exams, we can reduce the risks of skin cancer and catch potential issues at their earliest stages. Remember, prevention and early detection are key to maintaining healthy skin.

Let us break the stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding skin cancer and promote a culture of vigilance and self-care. Together, we can defy the statistics, embrace sun safety, and pave the way for healthier skin for generations to come.

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