Skin Cancer– Ottawa Citizen - August 8, 2012
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Skin Cancer– Ottawa Citizen - August 8, 2012

Here’s the skinny on skin cancer

By Kelly Egan

At least it feels that way, God’s punishment for sunny innocence, saved for a rainy day in middle age.

The mayor’s bout with the lesser form of skin cancer had us asking: For those pale-faced folk of a certain vintage, surely this is the health scourge of the 21st century?

My slightly older sister was visiting from Vancouver in July. We traded skin-cancer stories. She had a patch removed from her leg, near the ankle. Two years ago, I had a sliver of skin removed from the bridge of my nose and a larger chunk from my left shoulder, leaving a V-shaped scar. Other suspect spots were zapped with liquid nitrogen.

Honestly, they’re getting rid of me an inch at a time.

She reminded me of the awful blisters we had as freckle-faced kids after long days in the heat, long before “sunblock” was invented or at least commonly used. It was summer in the 1960s, a small house, with lots of kids. Your mother, of course, kicked you outside into the cascading rays.

It’s everywhere. I have a sister-in-law, almost exactly my age, who had a similar bout of skin cancer in the same year, as though we were twins. She sometimes uses a special umbrella on the sunny streets of Toronto, appearances be damned.

The physical damage, in the scheme of things, is minor; you feel and look the same, give or take. Jim Watson will not be “sick” with cancer.

In fact, when people ask me about the shoulder scar, I’m embarrassed to use the word “cancer” because it sounds too catastrophic, as though sympathy were called for. Not so. It’s all good.

But here’s the part that isn’t discussed much: You never feel the same way about the sun, ever again.

Hats, sunblock, shade. This is what sunny days are made of now, and what a summer it has been to feel under siege.

Mentally, a polar conversion begins to take place.

Most of your life, these things were true: The sun is good, life revolves around it; sunny days make people happy; summer is better than winter because days are sunnier, longer.

Post skin-cancer, it’s different. The sun is a threat. Seeing sunbathing on a beach makes you cringe. On the back nine of 18 holes of golf, you find yourself asking: Should I really be out here this long? Lord, sky, won’t you cloud over?

The Canadian Dermatology Association reports there were 74,000 new cases of non-melanoma skin cancers expected in 2011. About 83,000 cases are predicted for 2012, making it the most common cancer in the country.

In 2011, the association held a public drop-in for possible skin cancer at Toronto city hall. It was an interesting spot sample.

Of the 90 people who stopped by, 35 were sent for further investigation and eight were thought to have basal skin cancers.

Dr. Lisa Kellett was one of the dermatologists who took part. The results did not surprise her.

“I think that (result) is quite common.”

She said one in five people would develop a basal cell skin cancer and, especially among fair-haired types, as many as 60 to 70 per cent would have “pre-cancerous” spots.

There is, indeed, a connection between childhood sunburns and adult cases of skin cancer, she said.

“There is a direct connection. We know that most of the sun damage we get in our lifetime occurs before the age of 18.”

She added this cheery thought: “One blistering sunburn before the age of 18 doubles your risk of malignant melanoma later in life. And that’s one!”

The trouble in this day and age — of Snooki and Jersey Shore — is trying to convince 20-year-olds that excessive tanning and having a so-called “healthy glow” may be planting the seed for the appearance of cancer 30 years down the road.

“They don’t think long term.”

All the profession can do is keep trying to get the word out that the sun’s ultraviolet rays can cause skin damage and that this outcome is highly preventable. “I kinda laugh, you rarely see a dermatologist with a tan.”

The mayor, meanwhile, reports the surgery on his temple and neck was successful, though it took a “little longer” than the scheduled 45 minutes.

Best wishes, worship. Keep the disposition sunny; the rest can wear a hat.

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