The sun radiation and reducing your risk of skin cancer
For most students at medical school, the first time you step onto a ward is a thrilling experience. The hospital in London where I did my training was founded in the year 1123 and some of the buildings date to the time of Henry VIII – he of the seven wives fame – and centuries later Charles Dickens walked the streets and based many of his Victorian novels on the districts surrounding Barts Hospital. So it’s not really surprising that when I took my first steps onto the wooden floors of the old Florence Nightingale-style ward, that I was very much aware of the history of the place as well as becoming aware of angelic nurses in starched uniforms, the strong smell of antiseptic lotion in the air and the steely gaze of the All Powerful Ward Sister.
But what has lived indelibly with me all those years since was something else lurking in the atmosphere – a malignant smell! In the corner of the ward closest to the entrance was a small room designated as a private room where three times a week, the senior Registrar came to debride a massive cancerous ulcer caused by a malignant melanoma on the leg of a 46 year old dentist. In the short time that it took to open and close the door, the terrible smell escaped and everyone shared the same experience of despondency! This was in an era before the advent of powerful antibiotics and the modern techniques of excellence in wound management, but it left me with an enormous respect for the damage that can be done by a malignant melanoma.
This respect was compounded years later when I was working here in Perth and a young, new arrival to Australia came to see me saying that he had a
“rupture” under his arm! If it had been a rupture, it would have been a medical first, but even before I felt the mass of knotted secondary tumour under his arm, I saw the primary cause of his fatal disease lay on his chest – a malignant melanoma barely 2cms long and less than 1cms wide just above his left nipple. This event happened about 20yrs ago, and great strides have been taken in our understanding and treatment of this particular form of skin cancer, but it is still one which kills and disfigures thousands of Australians each year.
What we do know about melanoma and other cancerous conditions of the skin is that we Australians are world leaders in getting such cancers, and we are also world leaders in research and treatment of such skin cancers. All of us should also be aware that the biggest factor in causing our high standing in both “league” tables is that those of us whose ancestors only arrived in this great southern land in the last couple of centuries have skin which was not “designed” to take the glaring radiation that is the summer sunshine that we all love and adore.
Allow your kids a few significant “sunburns” in those critical early years of life and you may be setting them up to develop skin problems later in life. Our skin can only take “so much” sunshine – it literally cannot deal with the amount of radiation that the sun pumps out during our long hot summers – and once that radiation starts to damage the DNA in our skin, then those altered cells might just start behaving badly later in life and start to produce localized cancers, or even worse, they may “switch on” a previously benign pigmented skin blemish into a melanoma that could become malignant.
And it’s not just skin that is affected by the suns radiation: the eyes can be too. Thickening of the surface covering of the eye can lead to un-sightly pterygia which make the sufferer look like they’re constantly recovering from a big night, the night before! Sometimes, these pterygia spread in front of the pupil and have to be surgically removed. Too much solar radiation is also bad for the lens in the eye and may be an issue in developing early cataracts. It can also affect the seeing part of the eye – the retina – but that usually only happens when people try to look directly at the sun during a solar eclipse, but it’s still an amazing example of how powerful our Sun is and how much we should respect that power!
Mornings and evening are the glorious times of day in summertime when the colours are richer and the light is softer: it’s also the time when the sun is lower in the sky and our atmosphere is absorbing most of the more dangerous forms of radiation coming from it. This is the time when we should be out and about getting our exercise and allowing our skin to make Vitamin D from the sunshine. But from 10am til 4pm we need to cover up, wear sunglasses and apply sun block to any exposed skin. And we should instil these habits in our children from the time they are able to toddle outside.