Georgina Guedes

The skin-cancer summer buzz kill

2014-09-30 08:21

Georgina Guedes

When I got back from my two-week holiday in Greece, my children celebrated my return by both coming down with a nasty throat infection. I know, right?

I dashed my son off to the doctor (he was the first man down), and mentioned that this was my punishment for having gone away to Greece. The doctor checked his throat, ears, nose, chest, concluded it was viral and sent me on my way.

As I was walking out of her consulting room, she asked me, genuinely puzzled, “If you’ve just been to Greece, how come you’re so pale?”

To which I responded, “I don’t believe in tanning. There’s no such thing as a healthy tan.”

A variety of expressions crossed our doctor’s face. Surprise, acceptance and then something that seemed to me to be somewhere between respect and shame.

I left.

Tans are NOT healthy

It astonishes me that someone in the medical profession still thinks that the purpose of a summer holiday is to scorch your skin with the sun’s radiation.

I know that convincing the population is going to take some doing, but I would have thought that doctors, who frequently see people getting diagnosed with life-threatening cancers, would buy into whatever philosophy they can to reduce this unpleasant aspect of their jobs.

According to the Cancer Association on South Africa (Cansa), 20 000 new cases of skin cancer and 700 skin-cancer-related deaths are reported every year in this country. We have the second highest incidence of skin cancer in the world, behind Australia, and yet, unlike Australians, we blunder about uncovered as if the sun weren’t beating its dangerous rays down on us.

One of Cansa’s biggest missions is to overturn the notion that a tan is a sign of glowing good health. This is a deeply ingrained idea, so it’s going to be difficult to challenge. A friend of mine and I once went to a healthy cooking demo, and my friend commented, “I wouldn’t take health advice from her [the presenter]; she’s so pale.” It’s this kind of thinking we’re fighting against.

In fact, all a tan is, is a sign of skin damage. If, for instance, you put your arm in a microwave and it came out with a painful, red mark, you’d rush to the hospital and freak out about radiation exposure and the risk of cancer (and chuck out the microwave). And yet we nonchalantly expose ourselves to exactly this kind of risk every summer holiday.

The arguments against sunscreen

I am frequently astonished, when I leave the beach at 10am, to see bakkies arriving filled with dark brown children (who weren’t born that way), wearing tiny swimsuits, no hats and I’m betting precious little sunscreen, to compound the damage already done to their skins.

Cansa says, “Two blistering burns before the age of 18 can dramatically increase the risk of getting cancer late in life.” And yet many of our schools don’t have a hat and sunblock policy, and schedule playtime in unshaded areas for later than 11:00.

And this isn’t a “white thing” either. While black people have a much lower incidence of skin cancer as they are protected by their higher levels of melanin, they do get life-threatening melanomas and carcinomas (remember Bob Marley). Although their incidence levels are lower, their overall mortality is higher because they often miss out on the benefit of early diagnosis. So this message really does apply to all races.

Another rebuttal that often pops up when you tell people that you don’t tan, ever, is that Vitamin D deficiency causes rickets (as if a fear of rickets is what keeps them returning to the beach at midday every year). But according to the South African Melanoma Advisory Board, the primary source of Vitamin D is dietary and there are no reported cases of Vitamin D deficiency in South Africa – even among those who protect their children from the sun.

You CAN save yourself

So here’s the low-down on how to avoid sun damage, from Cansa:
-    Avoid direct sunlight between 10am and 3pm. I speak from experience when I say that early morning and late afternoon are the best times to be on the beach anyway.
-    Wear protective clothing and a wide-brimmed hat.
-    Wear sunglasses with a UV protection rating of UV400
-    Always apply sunscreen regularly – factor 20 to 50, according to skin type.
-    Avoid sunbeds and sunlamps.
-    Spot the spot – check your skin carefully every month, using the ABCDE Rules.

If this level of caution feels like a real holiday buzz kill, remember that it can help to prevent you from looking like a handbag or being dead by 55. So yes, I did look like a bit of a freak with my hat, and sunglasses and sarong and sunscreen among all the bronzed beach babes in Greece, but that’s a choice I’m making for my health and the health of my children.

- Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer. You can follow @georginaguedes on Twitter.

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