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Washington Voices

‘Healthy tan’ is a deadly oxymoron

Sat., July 31, 2010

Coated with baby oil, my teen friends and I lie on the beach, where the same cool radio station blares from blankets down the sand. Every half hour, the DJ cheerfully reminds us all to turn over and the beach resembles a giant rotisserie. Later, we’ll slap soothing lotion on our painful sunburns, and wear white to enhance them.

We baby boomers grew up being outside all day, burning, peeling, and tanning. Now we’re paying a huge price for our romance with the “healthy” sun – an alarming epidemic of skin cancers. We’re flocking to have lesions treated, and some of us suffer and die from melanomas.

Because there is no such thing as a safe tan, and sun damage is cumulative.

Though Doug Johnson of Diamond Lake wasn’t a sun worshipper, he was an outdoor guy, both at work and play. Ten years ago he ignored a blemish on his cheek that wouldn’t disappear; five months later it was diagnosed as a basal cell carcinoma, caused by repeated, unprotected sun exposure.

Over several hours a surgeon sliced away layers of skin off Johnson’s cheek along the cancer’s roots, almost to the bone. While being stitched up Johnson felt tugging and pulling; his surgeon was trying to find enough skin to sew his cheek together. What could have been frozen or excised with a couple stitches had become an excavation.

Later, as Johnson removed the bandage and stared in horror at the mirror, he thought, “I’m never going out in public again.” Today he has a large “Zorro mark” scar.

Though vigilant about prevention and routine checks, Johnson eventually became careless with sunscreen. Last February, he noticed a bleeding nick on the top of his ear and waited two months for it to heal. It was diagnosed as another basal skin cell carcinoma. “There’s so little skin there to work with,” he thought. “How deformed will I be?” This time he’d not delayed too long and needed only one slice of skin removed.

He was appalled at what he saw in the waiting room. “It looked like a MASH triage, filled with skin cancer patients wearing gauze bandages on noses, ears, cheeks, arms, and hands,” he said. He learned that this was the everyday scene there.

Johnson, the pre-stress safety director and human resources manager at Central Pre-Mix, tells his story to new hires, and supplies workers with a large pump bottle of sunscreen. “I’d be happy to have to continually replace it,” he said. “But I don’t.”

Most skin cancer is preventable with year-round daily sunscreen use. But for broad spectrum UVA/UVB protection against skin damage and wrinkles, your sunscreen must contain either titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, avobenzone, or Mexoryl SX, found in even inexpensive products. Also critical is a high SPF and liberal application, covering up, wearing a hat, and avoiding midday sun and tanning beds.

After seeing tan-mad friends develop leathery skin and deep wrinkles by the age of 20, I limited my beach-going. Then I fully embraced my pale skin at 30, after developing white blotches on my face; with the advent of sunscreen, I began using it daily. Although frequently complimented on my smooth skin, I see visible sun damage increasingly revealed and feel like a ticking time bomb.

Being a beautiful carcinogenic brown is simply not worth dying for, or having the tip of your nose scooped off. It’s never too late to adopt protective measures and examine your skin for changes; be quick to have them checked out.

Because, as Johnson points out, “There’s something about the word cancer that really gets your attention.”

You can reach Deborah Chan at


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