The flip side of the sunny winter get-away

Written by: Danielle Paterson, Executive Director, DCMF

We are deep in the heart of what’s been an exceptionally long, icy and cold winter in Toronto. Although I’ve loved a few amazing days of sledding, skating and playing in the snow with my children, I could have done without the extreme cold and icy conditions. In fact, I’m counting the days until we head down to Florida for a week of outdoor fun in the sun.

One of the reasons I love winter get-aways with my family is that they remind me of the sunny destination vacations I was fortunate to experience when I was growing up. I fondly remember endless days of swimming, sailing, playing tennis, building castles and snorkeling. These trips were a time to slow down and enjoy a bit of summer weather in the middle of our long Canadian winter, a time to read a great novel and an opportunity to spend quality time with my family.

Recently, however, a flip side of the wonderful nostalgia I have for these sunny winter trips is the realization that I experienced repeated extreme exposure to the sun throughout my childhood and adolescence. Yearning to warm up, eager to enjoy all aspects of the outdoors, I spent all day outside in the very hot and intense Florida or Caribbean sun.

Those were the 1970’s and 1980’s when applying ‘sun tan oil’ (I can still vividly remember that strong coconut smell) and ‘working on your tan’ were normal and expected behaviors. Although I tanned once in awhile, I was never one to ‘work on my tan’, choosing instead to enjoy a swim, run or snorkel. But the truth of the matter is that even though I wasn’t ‘tanning’, I probably spent the same amount of time in the sun as the die-hard tanners, receiving equal exposure and therefore equal skin damage.

I used sunscreen occasionally but it was usually only SPF 4 or 7, and wearing a great bathing suit was much more important than covering up with hats and clothing. As a result, over the years, I had several severe blistering sunburns, including painful burned feet and even a burned scalp after an unwise decision to get my hair braided.

I cringe when I think about the amount of repeated extreme exposure I received from the sun on these beloved winter getaways. I cringe because I know the following sobering facts about sun exposure and melanoma:

  • Melanoma is a common and serious form of skin cancer that can be fatal.
  • The primary cause of melanoma is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or indoor tanning equipment
  • The risk of melanoma is increased when you are exposed to intense intermittent sun such as that experienced on a sunny vacation
  • Light-coloured hair, eyes and skin (like mine) increase the risk of developing melanoma
  • The more severe blistering sunburns received as a child, the higher your risk of melanoma.

Today, I notice that more North Americans are taking steps to protect their skin during sunny vacations. That said, however, I continue to notice people actively tanning and people, including babies who are particularly sensitive to the sun, completely exposed in the blazing sun for extended periods of time.

As incidence of other cancers is starting to decline, melanoma’s incidence is actually increasing. In Canada in 2013, there were an estimated 6000 new cases and 1050 deaths. Particularly concerning is that melanoma is the second most common cancer among adults aged 15-29.

Fortunately, we have the power to change these statistics because remarkably, melanoma is preventable. After working in the area of cancer for many years, this fact continues to amaze and inspire me.

Since sun/UV exposure is the primary cause of melanoma, the best way to reduce your risk of melanoma is to protect your skin from the sun on your sunny vacation. Simply put, if you are in the sun, you need to protect every part of your body:

  • Protect your head with a hat
  • Protect your skin with long clothing
  • Protect your exposed skin with a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more and reapply often
  • Protect your eyes with sun glasses
  • Protect your whole body under the shade of trees or a large umbrella and reduce your time in the sun between 11am and 4pm when UV rays are most powerful

We feel the toll of melanoma more than most at the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund. Eight years ago, David Cornfield, a beloved son, brother, father and friend, died of melanoma at the age of 32. We continue to feel his loss and we miss him dearly. We are deeply committed to honouring David’s wish to educate people that melanoma is preventable and we are eager to empower people to protect their skin.

I cannot change the amount of sun damage I received on my cherished childhood winter getaways. I can, however, protect my skin now to reduce further damage and to be a role model to my children, family and friends. I can also actively protect my children to make sure they look back on their winter getaways without cringing.

If you have a chance to travel south this winter, enjoy your trip, create some memories, but please remember to actively protect your skin!

crowded beach

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