My (First) Brush With the Big C
by Martinique Davis
Aug 18, 2012 | 1800 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print

“Sunscreen!” I bellow encouragingly, as my 2-year-old lurches away from me like a puppy who doesn’t want to be caught.

Here in the height of summer, I wage the sunscreen battle with my two young daughters multiple times a day. And yet, despite my best attempts to keep them covered, lathered and otherwise virtually bubble-wrapped in protective creams and lotions, and swaddled in large hat-brims and long clothing, I still see the evidence of our life in the sun etched in swimsuit tan lines across their little backs and sprinkled in freckles across their noses.  

A little tan and some freckles – no big deal, right? We love to frolic in the sun here in the mountains, where Mother Nature grants us an average of 300 sunny days a year: a little color on the skin just seems an unavoidable part of the territory.

Yet as I discovered recently, many decades of Colorado sunshine can turn out to be a big deal indeed.

I noticed the little scab on my scalp last summer. Thinking I had unknowingly scraped my head, I paid it little heed.

But it didn’t go away, not all that summer and into last winter. Finally I went to see my doctor, who told me the lesion looked suspicious.

“Well, the biopsy results are back,” he started, in a phone call ten days later. I attempted to suppress the somersaults in my chest when I thought about all those scary what-ifs, but I nevertheless found myself holding my breath, terrified.

“And it is cancerous.”

Luckily, good doctors aren’t gluttons for drama, and quickly explained to me that the lesion on my scalp was basal cell carcinoma, the most common and (sigh of relief) least dangerous form of skin cancer.

“But,” he warned me, after we had made arrangements for the dime-sized blemish of cancerous cells to be surgically removed, “you’re much more likely to have another run-in with skin cancer, now that you’ve had this one.”

So predictably, I bubble-wrapped myself in protective creams and lotions and swaddled myself in hats and clothing. But as I learned more about the unassumingly little malignancy that had sprouted atop my head, I realized that while I certainly needed to protect myself as much as possible from the sun moving forward, the sun exposure I had accumulated starting as a child had likely played a significant role in my developing skin cancer as an adult.

There's no other way to say it – tanned skin is damaged skin. Any change in the color of your child's skin after time outside – whether sunburn or suntan – indicates damage from UV rays, I read. Yikes, I thought, thinking of those cute little freckles and faint tan lines on my daughters’ little bodies.

And while I’d always known it, my research reminded me, in no uncertain terms, that living at our elevation here in Telluride only puts us closer to the sun’s damaging and dangerous rays. And for my two fair-skinned kids, who now have a family history of skin cancer, that means our family must change its habits to some degree.

Experts recommend seeking shade when the sun is at its highest overhead and therefore the strongest, usually from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the northern hemisphere. Ha! Who ever heard of a kid’s birthday party or playdate taking place before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m.! So sunscreen and protective clothing have become my best friends.

I quickly realized my once-before-we-leave-the-house application of sunblock wasn’t enough: the American Academy of Dermatology recommends re-applying sunscreen approximately every two hours, and after sweating or swimming. I also learned some common prescription and over-the-counter drugs – including antibiotics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like (Advil, Motrin, others) – can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, and therefore more susceptible to sun damage.

So while it seems almost impossible to avoid those cute little freckles and faint tan lines that serve as reminders of my children’s days of fun in the sun, I must keep in mind: A tan is your skin's injury response to excessive UV radiation. And so while they don’t make it easy, I’ll continue to chase after my daughters, sunscreen bottle in hand, staving off the sun’s  not-so-sunny effects.  

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