If you've ever watched "Mad Men," you know people weren't applying a lot of sunscreen in the 1960s. On the California beaches where I frolicked as a youth in those years, we were more likely to slather on ‘tanning butter" that probably had a negative SPF. It didn't help that my fogbound Irish ancestors left me little in the way of pigment to block the sun's burning rays.
Only recently, did I learn that all sunburns that resulted were actually creating thousands of ticking time bombs. Doctors would later inform me that sun exposure is cumulative. We all have a sort of ‘skin cancer bank' that can pay a nasty dividend later in life.
Considering my history, I've been lucky overall, but not untouched by the most common form of skin cancer – Basal Cell. A million people are diagnosed with this form of skin cancer each year. Basal Cell and its slightly more aggressive Squamous Cell Cancer don't usually spread to other parts of the body, but they can grow enough to cause disfigurement.
In my 40's when I settled into a pattern of annual visits to my dermatologist, I realized that I was getting pre-cancerous lesions burned or frozen off with each appointment. That was getting uncomfortable and expensive. So after consulting more than one doctor, I decided to embark on a course of treatment with an ointment called Efudex.
This medication, applied to the face daily for a month seeks out and destroys pre-cancerous tissue on and beneath the surface of the skin. It feels like you're applying a thin film of napalm and makes your face look like the surface of mars in a matter of days. Most unpleasant. Do a Google image search for Efudex and you'll see what I mean.
After 30 miserable days, the skin on my face healed up quickly and looked a few years younger than when I started-- a bonus. But the real benefit was not having to have any of those patchy lesions taken off for several years.
Efudex and other preventative treatments are no substitute for those regular doctor visits. Dr. Christopher Nelson of USF told me that he has discovered more than a dozen potentially deadly melanoma spots on patients who came in for other reasons. So here's my advice:
- It's never too late to get religious about sunscreen – 30 SPF or higher.
- Find a doctor who's not afraid to give you a thorough and close exam-- like a mother baboon picking through its baby's scalp for bugs.
- And let it all hang out in the exam room. About a third of all melanoma cancers appear on non-sun exposed skin.