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Let’s talk skin cancer and you and your kids. Really, we must

Nicole Villalpando

I’m just finished an upcoming column about skin cancer, which you can read below. There’s a great, free screening on Saturday from Seton Healthcare Family. It’s the 28th annual event.

Here are the details:

Citywide Skin Cancer Screening Event

8 a.m.-noon Saturday

University Medical Center Brackenridge, 601 E. 15th St., first floor in the day surgery area

Screenings will be given on a first-come, first-served basis and take approximately 15 minutes to complete. Attendees do not have to have health insurance to receive a screening. For more information, please call: 512-324-3375.

Skin cancer on the rise in teens, 20s. What you should be telling kids

Vandegrift High School senior Brian Mulligan first found his skin cancer at the start of last summer when he was 17. He’s had a birthmark on his nose since birth, but it was now raised, red and irritated. It also had a scab on it, too.

For Mulligan, who has spent most of every day outside either playing tennis or golf, or at the pool or on the lake, exposing his skin to the sun was part of life. Wearing sunscreen, despite his mother’s warnings, was not.

Mulligan was diagnosed with squamous cell skin cancer. He had it removed, which left a noticeable scar.

Now he wears sunscreen, including zinc oxide on his nose, and he wears a hat. “If anything, now it’s not a joking matter,” he says.

Danielle Parsons was 24 last year when she found a mole on her right breast that didn’t look right. In fact, she couldn’t remember it ever being there. After looking at previous pictures of her in a swimsuit on Facebook, she knew it was new. Her mother, who is a nurse, had taught her the ABCDE‘s of skin cancer:

A: Asymmetry. A mole isn’t even on both sides.

B: Border. A mole has uneven borders that looked scalloped or notched.

C: Color. A mole has several different shades of brown or black or red, white or blue.

D: Diameter. Usually cancerous moles are larger than the diameter of a pencil eraser, though when first detected that might not be true.

E: Evolving. A mole has changed in size, shape, color, or elevation or it has a new symptom like bleeding, itching or crusting.

Parsons, who lives in Round Rock, but grew up in New Braunfels, knew her mole had all if it. And she knew how she got it. Even though she played soccer her whole life, including college, the mole was in a place that her uniform would have covered. No, it was from the tanning beds.. “All my friends did it, even in high school,” she says. “It was kind of a normal thing.”

Parsons’ cancer was early-stage melanoma. Luckily, she caught it in that stage. Her doctor told her that six months later, it might have been late stage — the kind people die from.

Parsons has a 3-inch scar and now goes to the dermatologist every six months. She checks her freckles and her moles regularly. She wears sunscreen and hats and she doesn’t go to tanning beds.

Parsons is not alone. Melanoma is the most common form of cancer in young people, says Dr. Matthew Fox of the Austin Dermatologic Surgery Center, and especially in girls ages 15-29. It’s the tanning beds, he says.

A tan, whether from a tanning bed or from being out in the sun, is a sign that your skin is damaged, says dermatologist Ted Lain. The tan is the way your body is coping with stress to try to protect itself. It’s not a sign of health, like some people still believe.

“Part of popular culture is of toned and tanned people,” he says. “It’s what kids see.”

While it’s unusual to see someone like Mulligan, who came into his office at age 17, it’s not unusual for him to treat 20 year olds with precancerous lesions or even skin cancer.

People particularly at risk are those that have a parent or grandparent that has had skin cancer; have been sunburned as a child and are fair skinned, have more than 50 moles and have blond or red hair, blue or green eyes. That doesn’t mean that if you are darker skinned or tan easily that you won’t get skin cancer.

What’s even scarier: the risk of skin cancer goes up if you’ve had it before. For melanoma, you are nine times more likely to find another cancerous spot once you’ve had one.

As parents, what are we supposed to do? After all, Mulligan’s mother told him to wear sunscreen, and Parsons’ mother was against tanning beds.

Lead by example. Wear sunscreen yourself and put it on your children, starting at 6 months of age.

“If they don’t do it when they are kids, they won’t do it as teenagers when you lose control,” Lain says.

You want to put it on 15 minutes before you go out and reapply every hour to two hours.

You’ll need about a shot glass full of sunscreen per person to get the right amount of cover. You want to use an SPF 30 or higher and make sure it is broad-spectrum, meaning it is getting the UVA and UVB rays. Lain also likes to use cream instead of the spray because it is easier to see what areas are covered and you lose a lot to the air.

You should also try to avoid the sun in peak times of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. You also can wear UV-protective clothing or use a laundry treatment with UV protectant that turns any item of clothing into one with sun protection.

“It really does change your life,” Parsons says. “Every freckle, every mole; it’s really scary.”

Read more about how you should pick a sunscreen here.