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Sunburns kill: Protect your skin, save your life

We love the sun so much that we live where we see it shine almost every day. And where we may be among those who are likely to propel Florida into having the second-highest number of new cases of melanoma, a serious skin cancer, this year.

Because this is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, it's a good time to consider what we need to be doing to protect ourselves. We consulted an expert, Dr. Clay J. Cockerell. He's a physician and is also the chairman of the golf committee of the American Dermatological Association.

Cockerell says he has golfed since he was a boy in Abilene, Texas.

"When I started playing, we really didn't have any sunscreens and didn't know how bad sun was for you," the Dallas physician says.

Sun needn't be dangerous if people are wise about their exposure time and protection, he noted. When Cockerell heads out for golf, he chooses a sunscreen with a sun protection factor, or SPF, of at least 30, and he slathers all exposed parts of his body. Cockerell says reapplication is needed every couple of hours.

He tries to tee off early, but if playing in the middle of the day, he makes an effort to seek shade. Because baseball caps don't protect ears, neck and jawline, Cockerell plays in a wide-brim hat, noting, "It just takes some getting used to."

What about women who wear visors because they want to protect their hairdo, or they simply like the look? Cockerell says these are not as effective as a larger hat for protecting the scalp.

Sun-protective clothing is a good idea, he adds, such as a windbreaker with an SPF of 30 or more.

Learning the hard way

Linda Pilkington, executive director of the Melanoma Research Foundation, grew up in New Jersey. Fair-skinned, blond and blue-eyed, she recalls she used to spend time as a teenager sunbathing, and in her 20s, she spent time in tanning salons.

Annual skin checks were not on her schedule.

Eight years ago, when she turned 40 but before she began working for the foundation, she saw a mole on her knee change appearance within a week. Pilkington had Stage 3 melanoma; it had traveled to her lymph nodes.

She has since learned that in addition to her previous sun exposure, she has a gene mutation associated with melanoma.

For a year, she took a drug called Intron A and endured side effects of flu-like symptoms. She is disease-free now but will always have to be alert to the possibility melanoma will return.

Pilkington says people often assume a melanoma can simply be cut out by a doctor. "For the early stage, that often is true," she says. "But most people aren't aware of the risk and the progress of it, so they tend not to get something checked out."

That increases the possibility melanoma will spread to lymph nodes or other organs, which is often fatal.

Juli Cragg Hilliard is a freelance writer living in Bradenton.

What causes melanoma?

Melanoma grows out of pigment-producing melanocyte cells. What exactly causes it to grow is unknown.

Who gets it?

Melanoma afflicts more men than women, and Causcasians are 10 times more likely to be diagnosed, although other races also are affected. Your odds of developing it are higher if:

1. You've already had it.

2. You have many moles.

3. A blood relative has had it.

4. You're a fair-skinned Caucasian.

5. You have red or blond hair or blue or green eyes.

6. You've had five or more sunburns.

How can you prevent it?

Limit exposure to sunlight. Apply sunscreen of at least SPF 15 every two hours when in the sun, and make sure your sunscreen protects from both UVA and UVB rays. Wear clothing that helps cover your skin and try to stay in the shade. Don't rely solely on sunshine to get Vitamin D, which the sun's rays provide. (Oily, fatty fish like salmon and mackerel are good sources.) Stay mindful of skin changes by checking your birthday suit on your birthday.

What are the signs?

Look for changes in the skin such as a mottled, dark blemish with irregular borders. It may bleed, turn shades of red, blue or white, and crust on the surface. Melanomas most often show up on the upper back, torso, lower legs, head and neck. Also check for moles that are asymmetrical, have uneven borders or unusual colors. Other warning signs: itching or pain in a mole or lesion, a dark streak near a nail or a bruise on the foot that doesn't heal.

How is it treated?

When caught early, melanoma is very curable. About 90 percent of people who are diagnosed survive. The primary treatment is surgery to remove it. If it spreads, patients may also undergo chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or biologic therapy, which boosts the immune system to fight the disease.

Sources:,, American Cancer Society, American Academy of Dermatology, National Cancer Institute, H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute, Florida Department of Health, University of Miami Medical School's Florida Cancer Data System

Sunburns kill: Protect your skin, save your life 05/12/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 13, 2008 10:01am]
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