“I’m afraid it’s a basal cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer.”
Those were the words I heard at the age of just 35, a mother with two small children, big dreams for the future and an even bigger mortgage to pay.
To say I was shocked is an understatement, yet really, there was nothing shocking about it. I’m very fair skinned, freckly and burn easily and boy had I been burnt, to the point of blisters and ruined holidays, as a child. My father gifted me my skin type, and he, living in Florida, has had his own brushes with skin cancer, but that was different right? I mean, he was much older, had almost never used suncream, and Florida had to be the x-factor?
I’m not going to lie, although I don’t actively seek a tan, I look one thousand times better with a bit of colour. My legs naturally hover somewhere on the Farrow and Ball scale between All White and Great White and ruin the look of many a smart frock with their neon, attention-grabbing, seemingly iridescent glow. It’s tempting, it’s so tempting to just let the pins hang out in the full sunlight without protection, just for a little while. The sun feels so good, how can it be wrong?
Clouds don’t stop UV…temperature is not related to UV.
Well, back in the doctor’s office, here we were. Treatment followed, cryotherapy in this case. Then a couple of years later, another suspicious raised something-or-other on my leg. Minor surgery this time, and a rather shocking letter explaining that a melanoma was suspected, not just a basal cell carcinoma. Luckily, it wasn’t.
A month ago, another cryotherapy treatment on my arm and surgery on my neck. (You keep appearing my fine friends, and we’ll just keep cutting them out.) We’ve caught them all, none have been life-threatening. The support from the NHS, and in particular Dr Cristina Rodriguez-Garcia and Dr Alex Kemp, phenomenal. “We’re here for you,” they say. “Just keep checking your skin and come back any time you spot changes.”
But it’s clear that it’s long-term sun damage that we’re battling here. Basal cell carcinomas account for around 75% to 80% of skin cancer in the UK. They’re caused by exposure to UV (ultra-violet) light from the sun (or sun-beds), and although they almost never lead to death, they can spread across the skin.
There are so many myths and misunderstandings about the sun and UV that it’s almost possible to understand why we don’t take it more seriously. But the facts are:
- UV is a type of radiation produced by the sun.
- UV cannot be seen or felt on the skin. The warmth that is felt is infrared radiation.
- Clouds don’t stop UV. So you can get burnt on cloudy days.
- Temperature is not related to UV. So you can get burnt on cool days.
- The UV level is affected by: time of year, time of day, altitude and proximity to the equator.
- You’re at greatest risk from UV between March and October and between 11am and 3pm (in the northern hemisphere).
- The reflective nature of sand and water increases UV by 25% on sand and 15% on water, which is why you burn quicker at the beach or in the pool.
- Getting painful sunburn just once every two years can triple your risk of skin cancer.
With the school holidays underway, and so much fun to be had, it’s easy to forget about suncream. Indeed recent figures show over 20% of parents wait until their children are visibly burning before applying suncream and 17% of children 11 and under have experienced “painful” sunburn in the past two years and a quarter of parents have encouraged their young children to get a sun tan.
So, as I pack for sunshine getaway next week with my two children, I’ve put suncream at the very top of my list. NHS guidance says we should all wear at least SPF15 sunscreen with at least a four star UVA rating.
What Sara’s packing: