V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Sun worshipper's cautionary tale

Published in The Toronto Star, June, 2009.

Photo by Vivian Song

Nicole McSweeney always knew she was at a high risk of developing cancer.

It was a latent threat that plagued her quietly but persistently: She's pale, freckled, a natural redhead, and suffered blistering sunburns during her teens.

When she reached her 20s, McSweeney, now 40, became vigilant about checking her moles. When she noticed a small, pink one on her right cheek, she sought the advice of her family doctor.

But it wasn't the facial mole that caught her doctor's attention.

Instead, the physician zeroed in on a dark brown mole below her left knee and referred McSweeney to a dermatologist.

"I was really dismissive about it," the social worker and mother of four said. "I had this mole my whole life."

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer.

In 2009, more than 75,000 Canadians will be diagnosed with non-melanoma cancers – mainly basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, which can leave disfiguring scars and may spread to other parts of the body.

Some 270 Canadians are expected to die from non-melanoma cancers this year, according to Canadian Cancer Statistics 2009. Roughly 5,000 will be diagnosed with melanoma. This less common but most serious form of skin cancer – the expected cause for 940 Canadian deaths this year – typically manifests itself on the backs of men and the legs of women.

"People increase their risk of developing cancer by having multiple skin burns and intermittent sun exposure," said Dr. Cheryl Rosen, national director of the Canadian Dermatology Association, ahead of National Sun Awareness Week, June 8 to 14.

McSweeney says she was a sun worshipper when she was a teen and would bake happily while working in summer camps, lifeguarding, and on family vacations in Florida.

"We didn't really have sunscreen when I was younger," she said.

"As a teen, I would lie in the sun, use baby oil and put lemon in my hair."

Her mole turned out to be malignant but was caught in time. A faint scar is all that's left after the dermatologist gouged out the mole and surrounding tissue.

McSweeney is now hyper vigilant about sun care when it comes to her four children, aged 3 to 11.

Making sunscreen easier to apply these days is that lotions are lightweight – no longer pasty and thick, and come in Sun Protection Factors (SPFs) as high as 100.

And contrary to one persistent myth, higher SPF ratings do offer better protection, said Toronto dermatologist Dr. Paul Cohen.

"I encourage people to buy higher SPF numbers but they shouldn't get a false sense of security," he said.

Sunscreen should be a final defence from ultraviolet (UV) radiation, he said, after seeking shade, wearing a hat, sunglasses and long sleeves. "I'm nervous that with SPFs of 100, people are getting too reliant on them."

The latest cosmetic sunscreens also contain anti-oxidants and vitamin A to reduce free-radical damage. Broad spectrum sunscreens protect against cancer-causing UVB damage, while protecting against the UVA effects of premature aging.

Sun protective clothing has also seen a spike in popularity, said Paul Bredin of outdoor equipment retailer Mountain Equipment Co-Op.

While a cotton T-shirt offers an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) of 4 to 10, sun protective clothing lines, like the ones by British Columbia-based NoZone, provide a UPF of 50, which blocks 98 per cent of UV rays.

"It was first popular among people who spend a lot of time in the water like paddlers and swimmers," Bredin said. "But it's grown in popularity among runners and hikers."

The difference is in the weave, said NoZone spokeswoman Katerina Ocaskova from Victoria. It's the structure of the polyester fabric and the tightness of the weave that acts as a barrier to UV penetration. The clothes are also chlorine and salt resistant and wick away moisture.

And though the public has become enlightened with sun safety in recent years, young Canadians exhibit the same reckless sense of invincibility as previous generations, ignoring the cancer warnings, experts say.

Canadians born in the 1990s are three times more likely to get skin cancer compared to those born in the 1960s. "Sunburns in the first 18 years of life increase the risk of skin cancer down the road," said dermatologist Dr. Benjamin Barankin.

"In the first 18 years, cells are rapidly dividing. If there's an insult to the DNA during UV radiation, the body will not be able to deal with it well."

Older men are also more at risk, but for a different reason.

"Men are not as good as women in catching spots," Barankin said.

"We catch women early but men seem to let things go."

That could be in part because melanoma commonly appear on men's backs where they can't see them.

Barankin advises that men over 50 get screened and that spouses conduct visual checks looking out for asymmetrically-shaped moles, irregular borders or the "fried egg" look, and different hues.

People also have a tendency to apply far too little sunscreen, reducing its effectiveness, experts said. A shot glass full of sunscreen should be used for the body and a teaspoon's worth for the face.

"The real message is be happy with the colour of the skin you're born with," Cohen said.

Website Builder