I was diagnosed with early-stage melanoma as a 26 year old second year resident in pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I was blessed to have a full surgical cure. I had spent my 20s inside the hospital and had very minimal sun exposure. However, I competed in Miss Mississippi, and spray tans wouldn’t quite last the full week of competition. I reasoned that I never burned and that I only went just prior to the pageant, using the machines less than the recommended times to get “just a little glow.” As a Vanderbilt medical student, I was able to draw the exact mutations that were likely forming in my DNA in response to the UV radiation! Sadly, I joined a disturbingly common logical fallacy: something terrible could never happen to me.
Fortunately for me, when something terrible DID happen to me, my medical training allowed me to catch it quickly. Melanoma chose the wrong girl to pick on! One of my greatest passions is to spare others the misery that comes with a deadly cancer diagnosis. My ability to adopt a child, obtain insurance, and feel safe in my own skin has been affected forever, and I was fortunate to even survive. Once melanoma spreads to the liver or the brain, chances for a cure are abysmal. Melanoma is also the most common cancer in people 25-29 years old, and many acquaintances have been diagnosed since I was. Of course, I am a sun safe fanatic now, and I am thrilled to share what I have learned as a board certified pediatrician and pediatric endocrinologist as well as a melanoma survivor.
1. Don’t underestimate casual sun exposure. The sun’s rays can damage skin in less than 15 minutes. Skin cancer rates are higher on the left face and arm for Americans and higher on the right side of the body for countries that drive on the opposite side of the road. Photoaging and DNA damage are cumulative.
2. No sunscreen offers perfect protection. Stay inside during peak hours (10AM to 2PM), seek shade as much as possible, and don’t forget hats and sunglasses. I’m also a huge fan of sun-protective clothing for my two young daughters.
3. Reapply sunscreen often (at least every 2 hours), even if it’s advertised as waterproof. Zinc oxide/physical barrier sunscreens are my favorite (EltaMD Clear and Babyganics are favorites at our house). Spray sunscreens are great for their ease of application, but beware of inhalation with little children.
4. Stay out of tanning beds. Period. There is no benefit to indoor tanning. Tanning beds are no safer than baking in the sun. Plus, the cancer beds bring with them the risk of infectious disease: MRSA and HPV outbreaks have been linked to tanning beds, and many were found to be contaminated by fecal matter in one prominent study.
5. If you see a suspicious spot, get it checked! Don’t forget to have your healthcare provider check your scalp, between toes, and hard-to-see areas on your back.
For more information, check out http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/basic_info/sun-safety.htm or https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/at-play/Pages/Sun-Safety.aspx.
Tips by Jessica Lilley, M.D.