Protect the skin you’re in

Sun exposure is a major risk factor in the development of skin cancer, so it's important for those who spend a lot of time outdoors to protect their skin

When pharmacist Barb Hawken had a cancerous mole removed from her forehead a few years ago, her interest in skin cancer prevention got personal. While she wonders if the lesion was linked to her sun-loving teenage years on a family farm in southern Alberta, the mother of three red-headed farm kids now approaches cancer prevention with an action plan.

Knowing that a family history of skin cancer increases the risk of developing the disease, sunscreen has become a sun-safety staple on the Hawken farm located north of Provost, AB, about halfway between Edmonton and Saskatoon.

Hawken, her husband Brad, their three kids and Brad’s parents also wear Tilley hats, which offer UV protection, when working outdoors. UV protectant sunglasses are another priority. “I even put sunscreen on our son when he leaves for school in the morning. His complexion is so fair he’s had sunburns at recess,” says Hawken.

Wander into the pharmacy where Hawken works and she and her co-workers will help you sort through the sunscreen products to find one that best meets your needs. “I know people can be fussy about what they put on their skin. It’s important to find one that works for you,” she explains.

“Skin conditions related to sun exposure are increasing with the sheer intensity of the sun and people are at risk if they spend a lot of time outdoors,” says Philip Emberley of the Canadian Pharmacy Association. “Pharmacists know the products on their shelves. If you have questions, ask.”

Prevention priority

Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer affecting Canadians and the incidence of this form of cancer is on the rise. Donna Turner, PhD and provincial director of population oncology with CancerCare Manitoba, studies and reports on the prevention, early detection and screening of cancer and approaches skin cancer discussions with three messages. First, skin cancer can kill. Second, it’s preventable and third, early diagnosis significantly improves the odds of successful treatment.

There are three common types of skin cancer, says Dr. Mariusz Sapijaszko, an Edmonton-based dermatologist. Melanoma is the deadliest, but basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are more common and are also serious. Basal cell carcinoma can increase the chances of developing other kinds of skin cancer and aggressive forms can damage nearby tissue, including bones, nerves and muscles. Sapijaszko and Turner urge farmers to take specific steps to protect themselves, their families and farm workers.

These include:

  • Limit sun exposure. UV rays peak at mid-day and are strongest between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Sapijaszko recommends farmers check the daily UV index along with the weather report. The UV scale goes from zero to 11, but an index higher than three is cause for greater care.
  • Cover your skin. Wear widebrimmed hats and clothing that shades the skin — ideally made of fabric that offers UV protection — even when inside a vehicle cab.
  • Wear UV-protectant sunglasses. “You can get melanoma in your eye and that’s an important fact that people might not know about,” says Turner.
  • Choose sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Choose a broadspectrum sunscreen with UVA and UVB protection. Remember to apply it to the face, neck and ears and reapply often, especially after sweating. Also apply lip balm with a minimum SPF 30. Turner says there’s one caveat: “We don’t recommend sunscreen for children under six months of age. To protect babies, they need to be in the shade.”

Early detection

While the majority of moles are normal and harmless, “it is important to be vigilant,” says Sapijaszko. He says people should know their skin and their moles and check them once a month. Enlist a loved one to check moles that are difficult to see. Moles that become itchy or bleed easily — like after towelling off — should be assessed by a doctor. Other warning signs include asymmetry, irregular borders and colour changes. Moles that get bigger should also be assessed.

“Dermatologists are the experts in the health and disease of the skin, hair and nails but it is also appropriate to see your family doctor if there are concerns about your moles. If there is a need for a patient to see a dermatologist, a referral can be made,” says Sapijaszko.

The bottom line is that skin cancer is preventable. “We need sun but we need to be sun smart,” he says. “We need to know our own skin and pay attention to it. If there are concerns, prompt review by the doctor would help in early detection of skin cancer. If detected early, skin cancer can be successfully treated.”