Protect yourself from skin cancer

PHOTOS BY DON DALE.
Even cloudy or overcast days can bring dangerous levels of sun exposure to the skin.

Dennis Martin is a professor and turfgrass extension and research specialist at Oklahoma State University, and he works outdoors a lot. He also plays golf. Any time he participates in either of these activities he wears all suitable clothing necessary to protect his skin from the sun and the several types of cancers and aging that can result from ultraviolet rays. He is light-skinned with moles, which indicates that he is at a high-risk level, but he says that everybody is vulnerable.

Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, calls skin cancer the most common form of cancer in the United States (www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/basic_info). Basal cell and squamous call carcinomas are very common, and highly curable, but they can become health risks. Melanoma, on the other hand, is a malignant and dangerous form of cancer, and in 2005 there were 53,792 people diagnosed with melanoma in the United States. Most were Caucasian with light skin, but not all. That same year, 8,345 people died of melanoma. It has a low recovery rate and causes a disproportionately high death rate compared to other cancers.

The CDC lists the following risk factors as indicating high susceptibility for skin cancer:

  • A lighter natural skin color
  • A family history of skin cancer
  • A personal history of skin cancer
  • Exposure to the sun through work and play
  • A history of sunburns early in life
  • Skin that burns, freckles, reddens easily or becomes painful in the sun
  • Blue or green eyes
  • Blond or red hair
  • Certain types and a large number of moles

Without proper diagnosis and treatment, melanoma is deadly. Even basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas can spread and be dangerous if left untreated. There are also several other kinds of skin conditions and precancerous growths that can be dangerous over time, and some of those are also caused by sun exposure. The Web site for the American Cancer Society, www.cancer.org, has information on different growths, and workers can check the site if they have suspicious skin conditions. The society recommends a yearly checkup to detect such growths.

Dennis Martin, Oklahoma State turfgrass researcher, is a walking poster for sun protection, and he is saving lives.

Spots, lesions or oddly colored patches on the skin can signal one of these types of diseases, but the indicators of melanoma are not always distinctive early on. Any discoloration or irregularity on the skin, or in a changing mole, should be viewed with suspicion and be checked by a doctor, preferably a dermatologist. The Web site www.righthealth.com has good information on melanoma, as well as photos of symptoms. A good way to detect melanoma is through regular self-examination, including the use of a mirror for hard-to-see areas, and an annual doctor’s checkup.

The way to avoid melanoma and other skin diseases is to wear protective clothing and sunscreen. Martin calls it “being sun-smart,” and he highly recommends it. Even cloudy or overcast skies can give off a lot of reflected sunlight that is dangerous.

“Something is better than nothing,” Martin says of sporadic use of protective clothing, but he prefers to go all the way. For him, that starts with a good hat. That doesn’t mean just a baseball cap, which shades only the upper face, leaving ears, temples and the back of the neck exposed. He prefers a broad-brimmed hat that is stiff enough to hold up to rain or washing. A darker hat absorbs more radiation, though it can be hotter.

“Light colors tend to be less effective than dark colors,” says Martin, who has done extensive research on the topic of ultraviolet radiation. Some hats now come with a UV rating.

He usually also wears either a hat with a flap in the back to cover the back of the neck, or a scarf that wraps around the entire neck. He cuts his own scarves out of dark cloth that he likes, because an ordinary bandana tends to roll up and fails to cover all of the neck.

The next obvious areas to cover are the arms and legs, which are often exposed in the summer when workers wear shorts and short-sleeved shirts. Martin again says that the thicker and darker the material, the more protection you have from UV rays. “I’ve actually been burnt through a long-sleeved shirt before,” he points out. The main objection he hears is that long sleeves are too hot in the summer, but there is comfortable cotton clothing that vents well and serves to cool, as well as protect.

“You get used to wearing the longer clothing,” he says, noting that this is an especially important aspect if you are allergic to sunscreen.

Sunscreen or sun block, of course, is the other major layer of protection. Martin wears it on the nose, ears and other exposed areas of the face even when he’s wearing a hat. A rating of SPF 30 or higher is recommended.

The last layer of protection, which does not necessarily have anything to do with cancer, is sunglasses. Martin insists on not only wearing them while outdoors, but making sure they are certified as UV blockers. He also insists on wraparound sunglasses that protect the edges of the eyes and helps to prevent blowing dust from getting into them. The short-term effect is to provide eye relief; the long-term effect is to avert cataracts.

Martin, who suffered a lot of sun damage when he was young due to working and playing outdoors, says that the southern tier of states has dangerous sun conditions, but the northern and central states can be surprisingly hazardous, especially when a worker is exposed to the sun for long periods of time. He checks the solar radiation levels on the National Weather Service Web site (www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov), which gives a daily map of the UV Index and the number of minutes to skin damage based on projected weather conditions.

A big part of cutting down on skin cancer, Martin says, is to supply appropriate information to landscape workers and to set an example by wearing proper protection. He has noticed at turfgrass field days and tour groups that if the leader wears protective gear and sunscreen, others in the group are more likely to follow.

“Some people just aren’t going to do it,” he notes. All the more reason for them to do rigorous self-exams and have regular doctors appointments to assess damage and growths.

Martin himself certainly doesn’t feel self-conscious for wearing his protective gear. He feels it has saved him a lot of grief, and he isn’t reluctant to expound on the dangers of the sun to others.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.