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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

For as long as I have known my father, he has had a large square-shaped scar on his left temple.

Before I was born, he had Stage 3 melanoma on the side of his face as well as on the middle of his back— where he also has a crater-like scar the size of a fist.

Whenever we would go on family vacations to the beach, the scar on his back was always covered by a t-shirt—not because he cared much about people noticing his abnormality, but because he wanted to be sure to limit his skin’s exposure to the sun (melanoma survivors have a greatly increased risk of getting another malignant melanoma). Growing up, if my siblings and I ever got sunburned, we were lectured endlessly about melanoma and forced to hear the details of his cancer story, again and again.

My dad was diagnosed with cancer before I was born. He lived with and overcame cancer before I was born. He started calling himself a cancer survivor before I was born. As a result, I grew up without realizing how big of a deal melanoma was. All I knew was that if I came back from the beach looking a little red, I was in big trouble.

As I got older I learned more about cancer, and today I wear sunscreen every day, always put on sunglasses and insist on checking and double checking every questionable mole at my annual skin exam.

Of course, there are many risk factors for melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and other types of skin cancer. There are certainly people living with skin cancer who spent their summers carefully applying sunscreen and steering clear of tanning beds. However, for many types of skin cancer, the risk factor that you can control the most remains ultraviolet ray (UV) exposure.

A tanning salon in my hometown actually used to offer free tanning sessions to high school students who were cast in the school’s annual highly-regarded 60’s themed musical show. Several of my friends who performed in the show looked forward to this deal every year.

“The lights on the stage really wash you out,” a friend had to explain to me. “So you have to be tan.”

Aside from the ominous point that tanning beds appear strikingly similar to coffins, staying away from them at all costs is important because of how much more powerful (and dangerous) this UV exposure is. Studies have shown that indoor tanning increases a person’s melanoma risk by 74%.

You don’t have to be tan, but you do have to protect yourself in the sun. Follow the CDC’s recommendations for reducing your risk of skin cancer.

Summer is time for fun in the sun, but don’t forget to be safe!