The message has been loud and clear: Lather up with sunscreen before you hit the beach, the park or anywhere the sun shines.
But many of us aren’t listening.
Only a third of adults usually apply sunscreen to protect themselves from the sun’s ultraviolet rays and skin cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Less than half of Americans wear protective clothing. Only a third of adults seek shade.
And while survivors of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, are nine times more likely to develop a new cancer than people who have never had the disease, 27 percent of survivors never wear sunscreen – even when outside on a sunny day for more than an hour – according to a study recently presented at the American Association for Cancer Research’s annual meeting.
“When I hear that, it makes me cringe: like fingers on a chalkboard,” said Ron Schwartz, a melanoma survivor who lives in Sandy Springs, Ga., and volunteers, spreading the word about the importance of wearing sunscreen and getting regular screenings for skin cancer.
Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers. The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in his or her lifetime. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are the two most common forms of skin cancer but are easily treated if detected early. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are associated with accumulated sun damage over many years.
Melanoma is different. It is associated with brief, intense exposure. In fact, one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles a person’s chances of developing melanoma later in life.
Melanoma has a high survival rate if caught early and before it spreads to the lymph nodes. It accounts for only 4 percent of skin cancer cases but causes about 79 percent of skin cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society.
Schwartz’s fight with melanoma goes back to the summer of 1999, when his sister, a physician, noticed a few “angry-looking” moles on her brother’s back during a beach outing. Schwartz’s doctor removed the moles and what appeared to be a cyst from Schwartz’s shoulder. The “cyst” was melanoma, and because the growth was beneath the skin, it was metastatic melanoma (which means it had spread).
Dr. Louis Rapkin, an oncologist and melanoma specialist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, said adults in their 30s, 40s and older grew up when sunscreen was not automatic. Getting people to change habits – whether it’s to exercise more or wear sunscreen – can be difficult, he said. At the same time, adults can deeply influence children’s habits by starting early.
“Whatever you learn before 21, you will keep with you for the rest of your lives,” he said.
Rapkin said the sunscreen is priority No. 1 for protecting ourselves from skin cancer, and he said we should wear sunscreen when outside for “prolonged periods of time.” For him, that means any time exceeding 30 minutes. He also recommends limiting exposure to the most intense rays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. – even 4 p.m., if possible.
A teen gets skin cancer
Eight summers ago, Chrissie Gallentine was a 19-year-old lifeguard in Florida when her mother set up a routine appointment with a dermatologist. During the appointment, the dermatologist identified four freckles she wanted to get tested as a precaution. Gallentine suggested the doctor test two more – one on her wrist and another on her thigh.
Gallentine, who has fair skin, was not a sun worshipper and burned easily. Going to high school in Florida, she was often outside with her friends – and the sun often had a bright presence.
The test results from the four freckles the doctor pinpointed came back normal. The two spots Gallentine suggested came back positive for melanoma. Caught very early, Gallentine underwent surgery to remove the freckles and some tissue around them. Her dermatologist continued to keep an eye on her freckles, measuring them and removing about 50 of them. The experience was traumatic, and for years, Gallentine was petrified of the sun.
“Anytime I walked outside, I could feel the sun watching me. I wore long sleeves even in the summer, and it was like the mean kid in school watching you across the cafeteria,” said Gallentine, who lives in Atlanta and works in public relations for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
Over time, Gallentine grew more relaxed. She tries to be smart about the sun but also enjoy it.
“It just kind of happened,” Gallentine said about the melanoma. “I hope people take from my story that the sun is not something to take lightly. … And I also hope that people know healing is possible no matter what you come across, and that it is something you can heal from emotionally and physically.”