In the earliest days of humankind, every person possessed natural skin pigmentation that absorbed harmful ultraviolet rays, thereby preventing damaged skin. After hundreds of thousands of years of human migration and evolution, lighter skin required additional sun protection. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks found solutions in natural ingredients such as rice bran, lupine and olive oil. Throughout most of what we think of as ‘human history,’ the more fair skin has generally been representative of higher social status, the implication being the absence of outdoor laboring. Fast forward to the youth of Gen X’ers like myself who spent our summers pouring baby oil over our skin, squeezing lemon juice over our hair and lying out in our back yards with foil shades in attempts to tan our bodies. Apparently, Coco Chanel was among those to popularize tanning as the new life of leisure and picture of health which eventually transpired into the “the new precedent of beauty in Western culture.” In my youth, Coppertone was the popular brand of sunscreen with Sun Protection Factors (SPFs) of 2 or 4. Sometimes we used it; more likely it sat in the cabinet and lasted several years since we only applied it for trips to the beach. It wasn’t considered a daily necessity. My personal routine was to allow my skin to burn just a bit first, before applying sunscreen. Now, I’m paying for that skin abuse.
When I married my husband, an oncologist, I continued to spend a lot of time outdoors without sun protection, until the day he made a comment that caused me to immediately schedule a dermatological exam. He said, “I’ve seen too many 24 year-olds die of melanoma.” Despite my hyper-vigilant sun protection over the past decade, the additive effects of a lifetime of sun exposure are evident. To give you an example of just how much damage you get from daily exposure, look at the inside of your arms, then compare to the outside. The following picture is personally embarrassing. You are looking at my right forearm from each side. On the left is what all of my skin would look like if it hadn’t been facing the sun.
The month of May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. If you are over the age of 40 and have never had a comprehensive skin check, now is the time. My dermatologist suggested the following reminder, “Every year on your birthday, schedule an examination of your birthday suit.” Since hearing this, I’ve seen recommendations from a variety of sources for even more frequent examinations for persons at higher risk, such as myself; some say monthly, some weekly.
If you still need more convincing of the importance of routine skin checks, think of the member of the Vancouver Canucks management team who was saved by a fan in the stands who spotted a suspicious lesion on his skin. The gentleman turned out to have a Stage 2 melanoma which was easily treatable and with 98% 5-year survival rate. If this lesion had progressed to Stage 4 before detection, there would have only been a 23% 5-year survival rate