When I was young, I remember tracing a scar on my mom’s leg that extended a hand's length across her upper thigh, like a gouge in clay. She had skin cancer, and the scar was from a tumor she had removed in her thirties, around the time I was born. As I grew up, I remember her always checking the moles on her arms and back, worried if they were black or irregularly shaped. Maybe because she’d had it as long as I’d been alive, it never occurred to me to be really worried. It was just always there, like an eerie hum in the background of our lives.

Growing up, my mom loved the beach. She was the captain of her swim team and she spent hours in the water. She remembers getting badly burned on many occasions. As far as she knew, sunburns were painful, but not dangerous. But by the time she was thirty years old, she had melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer. As a result, she was always careful about taking us into the sun, and when we did go, we would be lathered head to toe in sunscreen.

Because the danger of ultraviolet radiation from the sun was not well understood in my mom’s generation, skin cancer is now the most common form of cancer, occurring more often than breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer combined. Every year, it will affect over two million people.<sup>1</sup> According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, about 90 percent of non-melanoma skin cancers are associated with exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun and the vast majority of mutations found in melanoma are caused by ultraviolet radiation.  Check out the Skin Cancer Foundation for facts about skin cancer: http://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/skin-cancer-facts.

Skin cancer isn’t the only negative side effect of too much sun exposure. Premature wrinkles, sun spots and other visible signs of aging are caused or accelerated by the sun. A good friend of mine, who’s in her sixties now, came over to Maui when she was seventeen. She would spend her whole day catching waves, and the danger of the sun was the last thing on her mind. Now, besides having several cancerous tumors removed from her face and chest, her skin is so thin that it feels like paper, and even bumping up against something abrasive can cause it to rip and bleed. When she meets a young kid whose goal in life is to be a beach bum, she holds up her arms as a warning. Most kids aren’t interested in looking ahead, but she knows from experience that if you don’t preserve your health while you’re young, you will experience the consequences for the rest of your life.

With regular self-checks and annual doctor’s visits, skin cancer can be detected early and it is more easily treatable than other types of cancer. Still, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And something as simple as sunblock and shade can make the difference. My mom remembers that when she was young, hardly anyone wore seat belts. The mother of one of her friends insisted that all three of her children wear seat belts, and everyone felt sorry for the kids and wondered if their mom was a little neurotic. Back in the fifties, sunscreens were like seat belts, used only by the most cautious people. But like seat belts, we’ve gradually come to understand that sunblock is an essential tool in our everyday safety kit. As summer approaches, it’s good to take time to review the guidelines of sun safety.

  • The best way to avoid exposure to dangerous UV radiation is to stay out of the sun, especially between the hours of 10am and 4pm, when UV radiation is at its highest. You can also cover up, and wear a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.
  • If you do go in the sun, use a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher, and apply 1 ounce to your entire body every thirty minutes (this is twice what most people usually apply). Reapply sunscreen every two hours, or more often if you go swimming, sweat excessively or dry yourself with a towel.
  • Eat foods that are high in antioxidants, which fight the free radicals that contribute to cancer. Foods high in antioxidants include all berries, oranges, pineapples, grapes and many other fruits. Leafy greens are also high in antioxidants, as are most brightly colored vegetables.

My mom did find another malignant mole when I was in my teens. She had read a lot about diet and cancer prevention by that time, and she decided that the recurrence was a wake- up call to take her health seriously. In addition to practicing sun safety, she follows a blog by Dr. Terry Shintani, one of Hawaii's well-known physicians, who advises that it is possible to reverse disease through a plant-based diet. Check out his blog at http://healingradio.blogspot.com/.

Often, disease can help motivate us to make our health a priority. But, like my good friend would say, “Be akamai! Learn from my experience and you’ll save yourself a lot of grief later on!”

Footnotes: 
  1. Skin Cancer Foundation. Available at: http://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/skin-cancer-facts