By Karen Oslund
On a summer day in the mid-1970s I spent a glorious afternoon bobbing around Blue Lakes in an inner tube, my arms dangling over the sides; hatless and without sunglasses, SPF 0. That was surely the worst sunburn of my life, and the pain alone should have taught me a lesson. It did not.
Flash forward 40 years to 2017 and I am reclined in the dermatologist’s office, having a basal cell carcinoma removed from my left ear. Although I cannot definitively connect these two events, it is likely that the multiple, severe sunburns I experienced as a child and teen are working against me now. I grew up in California, in a family that camped, hiked, and romped on the beach with dogs. This was healthy in so many ways; yet, unlike our dog, I completely lacked natural protective outerwear.
Skin cancer is by far the most common type of cancer, and basal cell is the most common type of skin cancer. 8 of 10 skin cancers are of the basal cell type. Basal cell carcinoma grows most often on sun-exposed areas of skin, frequently the head, face, and neck. It can look like a sore, a raised, translucent bump, or a darker bump or it can be shiny like a scar.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, basal cell carcinoma is caused by a combination of cumulative and intense sun exposure. Other risk factors include fair skin and age. Skin cancer is increasing in frequency, but this is probably due to better detection and people living longer in addition to people spending more time in the sun.
Although basal cell carcinoma does not usually spread to other areas of the body, it grows over time and can invade localized tissue and even bone. Having it removed early is the best plan to avoid a larger, more disfiguring procedure. The cancer must be removed completely to ensure that it does not recur in the same location.
If you have been diagnosed with one non-melanoma skin cancer, your odds are greater than 50% of having another occurrence within 10 years, according to the skin cancer foundation. Vigilance is key. Check your skin regularly and have your partner look at the spots you can’t see. If anything looks strange, new, or questionable, just get it checked out.
It is every parent’s responsibility to ensure that children are protected from the sun from the very beginning. Good sun habits are developed early. It would be wonderful to see wide-brimmed hats come into fashion and stay. There are countless sunscreen lotions, gels and sprays on the market. Finding one you like and one that is effective involves some research, trial and error, or a recommendation from a friend. One thing to know is that most people use too little and do not reapply it often enough.
It is hard to accept that something that feels so good—the simple rays of the sun—can be harmful. But red and blistered skin would be a sign of alarm if it happened any other way. The sun gives us warmth, light, food, and life itself. It deserves our highest respect.
The Cancer Resource Centers’ 2019 Cancer Awareness and Prevention series is sponsored by CRC in collaboration with the Mendocino County Health and Human Services Agency. This information is presented for educational purposes and is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your health care provider. The Cancer Resource Centers of Mendocino County is a grassroots organization serving our communities since 1995 by providing information, advocacy, and support services free of charge.