Busting the myths on skin cancer

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MARINÉ JACOBS

Skin cancer is one the most common cancers in South Africa, yet many seem not properly educated on the subject.
Popular misconceptions include that skin cancer only affects fair-skinned people or that it takes years of extreme sunburn to get it. Well-known dermatologist, dr Dagmar Whitaker, says only three sunburns can significantly increase one’s chances of getting malignant melanoma.

“There are different types of skin cancer and they are caused by different types of sun exposure,” says Whitaker. “When we talk about melanoma, which is the most dangerous of all the skin cancers that you get from bursts of sun exposure like sunburns.
Burn-strength sunburns emit enough energy to really increase your risk of getting melanoma.
Then you’ve got the basal cell carcinoma, which is the most benign type of skin cancer and is caused my accumulative sun exposure over a lifetime.”

Excessive skin exposure came at a heavy price for Petro Camphuisen, a skin cancer survivor. Camphuisen was diagnosed with skin cancer in 2005 and had to undergo surgery to have it removed. Luckily the operation was very successful, but she has to go for regular check-ups to prevent it from returning. She admits that she now regrets all the hours spent in the sun and urges people to be serious about sun protection.

“I am totally and completely against tanning. If you really have to lie in the sun, you have to use a very strong sunscreen – you now get up to a 100 SPF,” says Camphuisen. “You will still burn, but at least it won’t be so bad. And don’t think if you’ve applied sunscreen once, it is enough for the day. You have to re-apply every hour.”

Another myth surrounding skin cancer is that it is not as serious as other cancers and can simply be surgically removed. Not always true. Dr Whitaker explains that melanoma is one of the most malignant cancers we know. “And that is not only skin cancers. A malignant melanoma can basically kill young people within a time span of a couple of years. It spreads very readily to the lymph system or the blood system and it is a very dangerous cancer to have.” She says it is impossible to ignore the dangers of skin cancer or say that it is not as serious as other cancers, because it is simply not true. So how can you protect yourself from becoming a victim of skin cancer? A few SunSmart tips from CANSA include wearing sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 20, which is not older than a year and bears the CANSA Seal of Recognition.

Remember to apply generously every two to three hours, stay out of the sun between 10:00 and 15:00 and wear a wide-brim hat to protect your face and neck.

Visit www.cansa.org.za for more SunSmart tips.