Sun Exposure and Melanoma: What I Learned From My Battle with Skin Cancer

by | May 1, 2021 | General Info, Healthy Living, Nutrition Info

I am a mother, dancer, runner, triathlete, and sun lover. The last one is what got me into trouble. Here is my story:

Ever since I was a teenager, I have loved the sun. I love how the sun makes me feel, what it represents, and how it made me look…TAN! Living in Minnesota, where we don’t show much skin for much of the year, it makes the yearning for a tan even greater. At sixteen, somebody nicknamed me Tannie Annie. Did I go to tanning booths? Not often, but yes. Did I wear sunscreen? No.

When we moved to Santa Barbara, California in my late 20s, I was in heaven! The mountains and the beach became my life-line while I was in grad school for physical therapy. It was then that I got into running, followed by triathlons. Triathlons were the best in Santa Barbara! Bike rides in the mountains with spectacular views of the ocean, runs along the coast line, and swims in a beautiful 50 meter outdoor pool made training out of this world. It was amazing and unforgettable! And besides, I had the perfect California glow.

Fast forward 2 moves later to Delaware and back to Minnesota. I continued to participate in triathlons and love the sun. I got smarter about wearing sunscreen (only on the face, neck, and shoulders) and trained in the morning or evening to avoid the heat. Life was good. I had 2 little girls, with another on the way. One afternoon, I was talking to a neighbor and she was nervous because she had a suspicious mole removed at the dermatologist. It reminded me that it had been a few years since I had been in for a full body scan. I called and made an appointment the next day.

When I went in for my appointment in late 2018, the dermatologist removed a suspicious looking mole from the back of my left calf. Since I’ve had moles removed in the past that were benign, I didn’t have a second thought. On December 23, 2018, I received a call that I had melanoma. I was told that I required a small surgery ASAP in order to remove the surrounding tissue in order to ensure all the cancerous cells were gone. It took me a few days to fully digest that I had a serious form of skin cancer that can easily metastasize through the lymph nodes to other sites. That is why it is so deadly.

I had the surrounding tissue removed, and now sport a 2 inch scar on the back of my calf. Fortunately, there were no signs of metastasis. I now have dermatology appointments 4 times per year and probably get something cut off 50% of the time. Luckily, all have been benign or mild-moderate dysplasias…not another melanoma. I feel like I should be on a first name basis with my dermatologist since I’m in so often.

May is Melanoma awareness month. It’s a great time to think about the facts, buy new sunscreen, and invest in upf clothing (which I own A LOT of now) as outdoor training/race season amps up. And, to remember to apply sunscreen everywhere! The most common place for women to have a melanoma is on the back of the legs.

– Dr. Annie Chesterfield

Melanoma facts from skincancer.org:
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States and worldwide.
1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70.
More than 2 people die of skin cancer in the U.S. every hour.
● Having 5 or more sunburns doubles your risk for melanoma.
● When detected early, the 5-year survival rate for melanoma is 99 percent.
● From ages 15 to 39, men are 55 percent more likely to die of melanoma than women
in the same age group.
● Women age 49 and under are more likely to develop melanoma than any other cancer
except breast and thyroid cancers.

How To Prevent Skin Cancer

Melanoma is the rarest form of skin cancer, the other types (basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma) are much more common but tend to be slower growing and less deadly. The latter two are almost entirely caused by the effects of sun/UV radiation on our bodies. Melanoma on the other hand can be sneaky. It can show up anywhere! Even where the sun doesn’t shine (like the bottom of your foot, scalp, groin/buttocks and in the back of the eye). Many patients I talk to are surprised to learn that fact when I suggest we look everywhere, and not just on sun exposed skin. I get questions often about how and when to put on sunscreen. Sunscreen comes in two main categories: chemical barrier and physical barrier. Chemical sunscreens like oxybenzone take 30min to kick in once you apply them, they need to be absorbed to be effective. This explains why many people still get burned even “with sunscreen on!”. I suggest applying this type of sunscreen 30min before heading outside. Physical barrier sunscreens lay on top of the skin and are effective immediately when applied. Zinc and titanium dioxide are two commonly found physical/mineral based sunscreens. When applying sunscreen you need a shot glass full for each application on the average sized adult. Keep in mind you need to reapply it about every 2 hours. So if you think about it, if you are on vacation in Mexico for spring break, one person should be going through bottles and bottles of sunscreen on that trip! You need a lot more than you think. Lastly, you need sunscreen anytime the UV index is greater than 2, not just in the spring and summer time or while on a beach vacation. UV index changes throughout the day and is highest between 10am-2pm, so either avoid the sun during this time or wear a bunch of sunscreen or UPF clothing. I recommend applying sunscreen to your face and neck as well as the tops of your hands every single day – regardless of the weather or season. Believe it or not the sun you get driving to and from work each day over time adds up over the years! You also have my permission to invest in some fancy, fashionable but also UV blocking sunglasses, do it, your skin will thank you.

Britney Busse MPAS, PA-C
Department of Dermatology
University of Minnesota