Ouch, that sunburn really hurts! Is that an all-too familiar sentence you utter, especially during the summer months? Skin is the largest organ in the human body, so being kind to it is important, for appearance and other health reasons.
What does our skin do for us? For starters, it covers all the inside stuff – and helps hold it together. Underneath our skin is a layer of fat – without this, we would be cold all the time. Hair grows out of our skin to regulate body temperature, protecting our heads, and making us look attractive to others. Without our skin, we wouldn’t be able to sense harmful things in our environment, like fire, for example. Skin contains sweat glands, and sweating helps control the quantity of electrolytes (potassium, sodium, etc. – those chemicals that keep our hearts and muscles functioning) in our systems. Vitamin D is present in our skin and becomes activated with exposure to sunlight. We must have Vitamin D and Calcium working together to maintain healthy bones, heart, teeth, and muscles.
Our skin contains a substance called melanin that protects us. How do we get burned? Exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UVA and UVB) rays is what does it. With exposure to sun, more melanin is produced, and skin gets darker. We call this a tan. But when there’s too much exposure to these rays, or when a person doesn’t have a lot of melanin (people with freckles or very fair skin, for example), the skin burns and gets damaged. Anyone who’s ever had a sunburn can tell you how painful it can be. With a second-degree burn, blisters will form. The skin feels hot to the touch and may be itchy. The actual structure of the skin’s cells change with repeated UV exposure, and this can eventually become skin cancer.
Those of us who had five or more sunburns in our lives are at a greater risk of skin cancer. How would you know if you had skin cancer? Consider using the A-B-C-D-E acronym method: Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter, Evolving. There are different types of skin cancers, some more serious than others. The most worrisome one is melanoma, which is the deadliest. The good news? If caught early (as in you checking your own skin for changes), it is very treatable.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, “When detected early, the 5-year survival rate for melanoma is 99 percent.” Most melanomas do not result from a mole a person has had for a long time – it is more likely the person will notice a new skin legion. However, people with many moles are at greater risk for developing melanoma. Melanomas can also appear in places that are not especially sun-exposed, like nails and parts usually covered by underwear. According to the American Cancer Society, melanoma is more than 20 times more common in whites than African Americans. Overall, the risk of getting melanoma is about 1 in 38 for Whites, 1 in 167 for Hispanics, and 1 in 1,000 for Blacks. Men are more affected, but women can get it, and the risk for melanoma increases with age.
The other two major and common types of skin cancer are called basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas (BCC and SCC). They often appear on the face and neck, especially in sun-exposed areas, and can become noticeable when they are itchy, painful, and/or bleed frequently.
Skin cancers can be sneaky, though. Some will not look very different from the surrounding skin. It might be harder to tell if there is a problem spot on the skin of someone with freckles. Some skin cancers are white, pink, or blue in color. It’s important to note that skin damage can occur year-round, even in cloudy weather, because those UV rays sneak through. Because of the amount of time the left side of a trucker’s body is exposed to the sun while driving, there is a greater risk of developing skin cancers on that side. And cancer is not the only effect – wrinkling of the skin (made worse by smoking) also occurs in people with high UV exposure.
So, what can you do to protect yourself? For starters, limit sun exposure, and don’t forget your broad-brimmed hat. Make sure your skin is covered, especially your left arm, with a long-sleeved shirt. Nowadays, there is even clothing being made with UPF – Ultraviolet Protection Factor – specifically to block those UV rays. Of course, that wouldn’t really work for protecting your face, so your best bet is using sunscreen.
Perhaps you’re a little worried about the recent news regarding cancer-causing agents in some popular sunscreens. Many sunscreens are absorbed into your skin, and if they have carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals), they can increase your risk of many types of cancer. Check the Internet to see a list of sunscreens that do not contain carcinogens. Which SPF (Sun Protection Factor) is best? Well, depends on who you talk to, but the general consensus is that it should be somewhere between 30 and 50 and “broad spectrum” (meaning it protects from the two main types of ultraviolet radiation). SPF higher than 50 doesn’t give much more protection, and can give users a false sense of security, causing some to feel like they don’t need to find shade or reapply the sunscreen. In that scenario, they are putting themselves at greater risk of developing skin cancer.
This will seem so obvious but stay in the shade as much as possible. There may not always be a shady spot for an 18-wheeler, but at least your cab might be protected. If you must be in the sun, try to do it in the early morning and late day hours. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the sun is most dangerous between 10 AM and 4 PM, and even more so at higher altitudes. And who wouldn’t love to have that golden tan appearance on their skin? Well, you can still get a tan using sunscreen, but definitely avoid tanning beds.
I often say the greatest invention of the 20th century was not the computer, but sunscreen. However, it only works if you actually put it on! If you find it a bit uncomfortable, just try to imagine how having surgery to remove skin cancer might feel and the scars it might leave. Take care of yourself and your skin. After all, if you don’t, who will? You only get one chance with your skin, and it is not a game, so protect yourself at all costs. Happy trucking (hopefully in plenty of shade).
~ Norma Stephens Hannigan is a Doctor of Nursing Practice who recently retired after a 43-year career providing direct care and teaching future nurses and nurse practitioners. Dr. Norma has treated many truck drivers at the various clinics she has worked. She currently writes for 10-4 Magazine from her home in Newburgh, NY.