Healthy Summer Skin: Sun Protection from Skin Cancer
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Healthy Summer Skin: Sun Protection from Skin Cancer

Here, a take-charge guide to summer safety and sun protection, plus real women's skin cancer survival stories.

We Survived Skin Cancer

It's the second most common cancer for women between the ages of 20 and 29, and cases of the most common form, basal cell carcinoma, have tripled in women under 40 in the past 30 years. Yes, we're all at risk. But experts want you to know that if caught early, skin cancer is highly curable. And certainly, reading these stories of young female cancer survivors drives that point home. Here's what you can learn from them.

"My dermatologist had never seen so much sun damage in someone so young."

-- Jennifer Burke Labriola, 32, Westerly, Rhode Island
Age diagnosed: 30

When a dermatologist told me that he'd rarely seen anyone at 25 with such extensive sun damage, I started wearing SPF 8 in the summers. I thought that was all it took to protect my skin. Growing up, I was a competitive swimmer and a swim instructor, and by the end of every summer, I was always tan -- even sunburned. But somehow I never worried about developing skin cancer.

That changed when I was 30. I noticed that a mole on my chest had become raised and occasionally hurt. My dermatologist biopsied it, and I was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma. I was stunned, and finally got the message to stay out of the sun and protect myself in every way possible when I'm exposed. Now I wear SPF 30 moisturizer all over my body, plus powder with SPF 30 on my face. And I always carry sunscreen wipes in my bag so I can reapply often.

My family lives near the beach in Rhode Island, and we're all covered in sunscreen every day during the summer. I preach to my four younger sisters about sun protection; I don't want any of them to repeat my mistakes. The scar on my chest reminds me every day how fortunate I am to be alive.

Skin Check!

A skin self-exam can save your life. To find out how to do one and to see what melanoma, basal cell, and squamous cell carcinomas look like, go to the link below.


"I was a tanning-bed lover."

-- Meghan Rothschild, 23, Wilbraham, Massachusetts
Age diagnosed: 20

What blows me away is that I still meet people who say, "Melanoma is just skin cancer." When I show them my scars and photos of what I looked like after my surgery, with tubes coming out of all the incisions to drain the fluid from my lymph nodes, they finally get how serious skin cancer is.

In fact, it took me a long time to "get it." I'm loath to admit that even after having a suspicious mole removed, I went straight to the tanning salon.

I snapped out of denial two weeks later when the doctor told me I had stage II melanoma. He immediately started talking about survival rates and explained that he'd have to remove some lymph nodes to see if the cancer had spread. I left the office and called my mom, sobbing. I kept saying to myself, "I'm too young to have cancer." But I wasn't: I ended up having another mole removed near the first one (fortunately, it wasn't cancerous) along with eight lymph nodes. I had 70 stitches and now have four giant scars. They remind me every day of how very lucky I am to be alive and healthy.

Now I speak to high school kids about the dangers of tanning and show them slides of how "just" skin cancer disfigured my body. I hope that tanning booths will soon be as frowned upon as smoking.

"I had to deliver my baby a month early."

-- Sarah Dupret Aasheim, 37, Belchertown, Massachusetts
Age diagnosed: 28

I was 32, and 19 weeks pregnant with my daughter, when I found a lump in my groin and was diagnosed with stage III melanoma. My doctors gave me a 50 percent chance of living for more than five years.

When I was 28, I'd had a mole removed from the back of my thigh that was diagnosed as stage I melanoma, and this was the origin of its spreading.

I had surgery to remove the cancerous lymph nodes. I was concerned that the cancer would spread to the fetus, but the doctors told me there was minimal to no risk of that happening.

My husband and I had undergone fertility treatments in order to get pregnant. Since the immunotherapy I needed to reduce the risk of recurrence could have harmed the fetus, we decided with our doctors to delay the treatment until the baby was born. I delivered my daughter a month early so that I could start the 12 months of drug therapy as soon as possible. I have been disease-free since 2002, and I continue to have body scans regularly and to see my dermatologist and my oncologist several times a year.

You never do a touchdown dance with this disease, because there's always the risk of recurrence. As a teenager, I bought into the ridiculous idea that getting a base tan would make it safer to tan at the beach. Now I'm religious about sun protection. I'm a marathon runner, but I run only in the very early morning, completely covered in sunscreen and wearing a hat -- even in the winter. I know now that the sun's rays are just as present and can do damage in the winter, even though you might not get a sunburn.

My husband -- who had a melanoma removed in 2003 -- and I talk with our daughter about the importance of sun protection. She will grow up with these habits, and hopefully she'll never go through what we did.

"It didn't look like skin cancer."

-- Elizabeth Miers, 27, Allentown, Pennsylvania

The mole on my face didn't look at all like the photographs of skin cancer I'd seen on the Internet. Even the dermatologist I finally saw after it had gotten a little bigger and changed in color said it looked fine and told me to come back in a year. At my appointment 12 months later, however, the story was very different: The doctor said he didn't like the way the mole looked and did a biopsy. I was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma.

To remove the cancer, I had Mohs surgery -- a procedure in which a surgeon shaves off the skin layer by layer and looks at it under a microscope. He keeps going until he reaches a cancer-free layer. I also had plastic surgery to close the wound, because it was on my face.

My doctor told me that I will almost certainly get more carcinomas, because I'm so young and having one skin cancer puts you at high risk for developing more. Now I pay very close attention to every mole and spot on my body, and the minute anything changes, I go straight to the dermatologist.

"My darker skin made me think I wasn't at risk."

-- Maria Battista Dzurilla, 38, Wilton, Connecticut
Age diagnosed: 37

I have olive skin, zero freckles, and no family history of skin cancer, so I wasn't that worried when I noticed the tiny black dot on my arm while we were on vacation in Florida back in 2005. At first I thought it was a tick, but when I tried to remove it, a piece just flaked off. I remembered reading that this was a possible sign of skin cancer, but I still wasn't too concerned. I should have been -- I've since learned that skin cancer in people with darker complexions can be more deadly because it's often diagnosed at later, harder-to-treat stages, because the skin changes aren't as visible until the disease has advanced. Plus, I'd had two burns as a teenager -- one in Florida when I was 13 and one in the Bahamas five years later -- and this also raises your risk of the disease.

When I got back home, I went to my dermatologist, and he took a biopsy. A week later I got the call saying it was stage I melanoma. I was terrified that it had spread to other parts of my body, but the doctor removed more skin around the area and thankfully it came back cancer-free.

Skin Cancer 101

Skin cancer is divided into two main categories: nonmelanomas and melanoma.

Nonmelanomas are either basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma. Basal cell carcinoma begins at the epidermis, which is the top layer of the skin, and is typically found on sun-exposed areas such as the scalp, ears, neck, shoulders, back, hands, and face. Most grow slowly and don't usually spread to other parts of the body unless they're not treated. Squamous cell carcinoma also starts in the epidermis and most often occurs in the same sun-exposed areas. This type of cancer is more likely to spread to other parts of the body if left untreated. Both basal and squamous cell carcinomas have about a 95 percent cure rate if caught and treated early.

Melanoma is cancer of the melanin cells, which give skin a tan or brown color and help protect it from the sun. Melanoma is generally diagnosed on a scale of I to IV. Early melanomas, or stages I and II, are usually localized and often completely curable by simply removing the cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for these stages is 99 percent. Advanced melanomas, or stages III and IV, have metastasized, or spread, to regional tissues or other parts of the body. For melanoma that's spread to the regional (or close) surrounding area, the survival rate is 65 percent.

Stay Out of the Tanning Salon

"The only safe tan comes in a bottle," says Ariel Ostad, MD, a clinical professor of dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine. Here are some frightening facts about tanning salons and your skin, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

  • People who use tanning beds are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma than people who avoid them.
  • New high-pressure sunlamps emit doses of ultraviolet (UV) radiation that can be 15 times more powerful than the sun's.

A skin self-exam can save your life. To find out how to do one and to see what melanoma, basal cell, and squamous cell carcinomas look like, go to the link below.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, June 2007.