Published on May 31, 2011
“I am going to get skin cancer.” Coming from a healthy 22 year old, this might sound like a jarring statement, but according to the Mayo Clinic people with fair skin, who have blonde or red hair and who freckle or burn easily are at a much greater risk of developing skin cancer.
Fair skin? Check.
Red hair? Check.
Skin that freckles and burns easily? Double check.
If these were the only risk factors that applied to me, I might be less concerned over the future state of my skin; unfortunately, it is not. Genetics may be a factor in getting skin cancer; however, another major risk factor is having a history of sunburns. You might assume that, given my strong resemblance to Little Orphan Annie, I have always been very careful about sun exposure, but you would be wrong. Between swim team practice, beach trips, and lifeguarding, I spent the majority of every summer after the age of 5 outside in the sun. Fortunately, I had extremely responsible parents who kept me indoors mid-day, when the UV rays are strongest, and who did their best to slather me with sunblock.
Unfortunately, as a child, I hated everything about sunblock. What I hated most was the constant reminder to put it on, not just from my parents but from virtually everyone I came in contact with. Complete strangers, fearing for my unnaturally pale skin, would often interrupt my childhood fun to offer me some sunscreen. I should have been touched by their concern but, being a child, was instead annoyed and, to my future detriment, I decided to place all of the blame for my annoyance squarely on sunblock. Secretly not applying it became my own form of adolescent rebellion but, of course, all I managed to accomplish was to incur several severe sunburns, including one that left me with the nickname “the lobster”.
You may wonder what prompted the change from someone who was once so lackadaisical in their safe sun practices to the skin cancer prevention vigilante that I am today. The answer is very simple: my third and final risk factor, a family history of skin cancer. What happens when both of your parents, most of your grandparents, and the majority of your aunts and uncles have all had at least one run-in with skin cancer?
Despite realizing that the majority of my blood-relations all have had cancerous cells removed, I was never too concerned until my 16- year-old cousin and my grandfather both had to undergo major excisions, removal of a skin cancer along with some of the healthy skin tissue around it, around the same time period. The implications of these surgeries finally hit me; not only did I realize that young people could be affected by skin cancer, but I also realized that it meant more than having a mole or two removed.
My grandfather, unfortunately, had contracted a very rare type of skin cancer: merkel cell carcinoma. Thankfully, the doctors caught it early and were able to save his life, but they did have to amputate one of his toes to make sure the cancer would not spread. It was after this that I really began to educate myself on skin cancer. I learned that not only is skin cancer the most common cancer in the United States, but that melanoma is actually the most common form of cancer for young adults 25-29 years old and the second most common form of cancer for young people 15-29 years old.
Many who know me think that resigning myself to a fate of getting skin cancer is uncharacteristically pessimistic, if not downright depressing, but I believe the opposite to be true. Since I am convinced that, for me, the question of skin cancer does not begin with an “if” but with a “when”, I am constantly on guard against the disease. I check my skin for suspicious looking freckles once a week, I obsessively check the UV index each morning, and, in addition to my regular sunscreen routine, I use makeup with SPF. By taking all of these steps towards prevention, I am keeping my skin as healthy as possible for as long as possible. When the day I see something suspicious finally arrives, I will have detected it early and therefore greatly increase my chances for a successful treatment. Some may call me pessimistic, but I’m just doing everything I can to make sure that I get to live a long and healthy life. And by following the tips on preventcancer.org/saveyourskin, you can too!