“The Sun—Our Friend and Foe,” Ensign, Aug. 1987, 56–57
Our sun, the center of our solar system and essential to all life on earth, gives us light, heat, and even food. Nothing is more exhilarating than a beautiful sunrise or a brilliant sunset, and by the certainty of the daily sunrise and sunset we gauge our time and plan our lives.
Yet the sun, so fundamental to life, can be a lurking, slow-acting enemy. Too much sun can cause skin cancer.
Although ultraviolet rays, which do the damage, are only a small percentage of the sun’s total output, the harm they do is accumulative. Skin cancer often appears in the fifth decade of life after years of extensive exposure to the sun.
In addition to cancer, the sun can also cause premature aging and wrinkling of the skin. No one is immune to sun-related skin damage, but prime targets are people with blond, light brown, or red hair and those with pale, ruddy, or freckled skin. They have less of the protective pigment substance, melanin, in their skin. Those who spend a great deal of time in the sun, those who have been severely sunburned in their childhood, teens, or twenties, and those whose relatives have had skin cancer are also at high risk.
Protection from the sun is the best method of preventing sun-caused disease. Wearing a hat can eliminate about half the harmful ultraviolet rays, and covering arms and legs with light colored clothing also helps. Remember that snow and water reflect sunlight and that rays can penetrate even three feet below the water. And the higher the altitude, the less atmosphere there is to filter out ultraviolet rays. Fair-skinned people are at greatest risk during the middle of the day—from 10:00 A.M. until 3:00 or 4:00 P.M.
Commercial sunscreen preparations are good protection for anyone who must be in the sun for work or recreation. These lotions contain chemicals that block the passage of ultraviolet rays. Manufacturers have standardized the amount of effective blockage with a numerical system that gives users varying degrees of protection; a number 15 preparation gives the maximum amount. As with any cosmetic, it is wise to check the contents before buying sunscreen to make sure it does not contain substances that will irritate your particular skin. Then try it on a small spot before using it on large areas of the body.
Use of a number 10 to 15 sunscreen, on the face and especially on areas not normally exposed to the sun, is recommended for at-risk people whenever they go outdoors for extended periods of time—even in cloudy weather. Remember to reapply the sunscreen after swimming or exercising.
For people over forty, it may be too late to prevent skin cancer, so it is important to know the visual symptoms. Most skin cancers can be safely and completely removed if you detect them early and consult a physician immediately.
What do you look for? At any age, any change in the skin’s surface should be closely watched. Caution signs are moles that grow, change color, or become flaky or inflamed; sores that do not heal in the normal length of time; pimples that persist, especially if they bleed when the area is washed or touched; changes in size, texture, or color of birthmarks; constantly chapped lips; scaly or discolored spots or bumps that appear suddenly and remain; or any other unusual condition of the skin, such as crusty or itchy spots.
These should be brought to the attention of your physician or dermatologist, who will order a biopsy—a microscopic examination of a tissue sample—if there is any possibility that the condition is malignant. The doctor will then suggest one of several methods of eliminating a cancer or pre-cancer condition. Common methods are chemical freezing, surgery, or X-ray irradiation.
Fortunately, with early detection and care, there is now a 95 to 100 percent assurance of completely curing the most common forms of skin cancer. But even more significant is that they probably can be prevented if informed parents begin to take care of their own and their children’s skin early enough in life.—Zina Coe Alves, Sacramento, California