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By VINCE LUECKE
I recently spotted a teenager at a county fair with a painful looking sunburn. I didn’t know him so I don’t know how he got the burn, but he spent far too long in the sun with either no or definitely not enough sunscreen.
I’ve been in his skin before. I try hard to avoid burns as an adult because I know increased sun damage increases the chances for all types of skin cancer, including the most serious, melanoma.
My skin has never been able to take much of the summer sun without turning red. Experience taught me that and the teenager with red, peeling skin on his shoulders and arms reminded me of a far worse sunburn years ago and the need for all of us to take what steps we can to avoid skin cancer.
During the summer before my senior year in high school, I was selected to attend Hoosier Boys State in Terre Haute. The list of possible activities on the brochure mailed to me included swimming.
I couldn’t swim well at the time (and still can’t), and cringed at being poolside with a bunch of strangers. Then I realized something: My legs and chest were white as a ghost. Only my arms were tanned.
Would my farmer’s tan be the butt of jokes? I convinced myself they would. I had to get a tan and soon — I had less than a week.
A day or two later, I learned over the breakfast table that I would be raking hay. That’s how it was growing up on the farm. I was given the day’s marching orders in the morning. How big was the field, I asked. “Big,” my brother said. “Should take you most of the day.”
A job I normally would have groaned over being assigned suddenly became exciting. I would get my tan raking hay.
I’m sure my brother was wondering why I was so eager to go that day. Regardless, by 11 a.m. I was making my rounds in a huge field, clad only in a pair of shorts and shoes. I imagined myself with a bronze body that would make all the other farm boys green with envy. I even drove slower than normal so the job would take longer.
Little did I know that my white-skinned back, arms and legs were baking in the sun.
By 2 p.m., the top half of my body was a rosy pink. My plan was working. By 4 p.m. I was done raking. My back stung, so I decided to put my shirt back on.
Back home, I told my mom my back hurt. She lifted the back of my shirt and let out a gasp.
She put vinegar on my back, her homespun treatment for sunburn. It was too late. That night I didn’t sleep. The next day I wanted to die. I couldn’t move without hurting. Even my brothers felt sorry for me.
By the time I left for Terre Haute a couple of days later, my back was blistered, along with my shoulders and part of my legs.
“Wow, I bet that hurts,” my roommate from Muncie said when he saw me getting ready for bed that first night.
For the next few days, I suffered with the pain and blisters that wept so much they kept the back of my shirt damp. Needless to say, I opted out of swimming when the chance arose. By the end of the week, I could scrape several layers of skin off my shoulder.
My week-long experience had been scarred along with my body.
Fortunately, I never let the sun burn me to that extent again, despite an occasional relapse.
I realize my light complexion makes me more prone to skin cancer and have been told that only one or two instances of severe sunburn, like I suffered as a teen, greatly increase people’s chances of developing skin cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, half of all Americans will develop skin cancer sometime in their lifetime. Fortunately, most are small lesions that are easily treated if detected.
Still, skin cancer can be deadly. Melanoma, the fastest spreading and deadliest form of skin cancer, strikes about 35,000 Americans each year and kills around 7,000. I don’t want to be in that group. At my last physical, my doctor recommended I see a dermatologist every year to detect any problems early. I’ve not done it yet, but I spend more time looking at my skin than I used to. I also take steps to protect myself from the sun’s effects.
Preventing skin cancer involves common sense measures: apply sunscreen regularly, wear a hat and other clothing that shield the skin from the sun. When possible, avoid being outside during afternoon hours when the sun’s rays are the most direct.
I try to follow all these steps, but it takes resolve. I sometimes get lax. The result is a sunburn. When I was young, I used to smile when I saw old farmers, in the middle of summer, dressed in overalls, long-sleeve shirts and big straw hats. I’m not snickering anymore.