For five or six blissful months, I have (mostly) felt safe from the sun. In the winter, I am covered up, out of the sun. But when I’m in it, I’m relaxed. This is not the case the rest of the year. Last Sunday, a lovely day, we considered walking over to our favourite brunch place. I sighed. It is October, spring is in full force, and I knew that if I was going to spend an hour or more outside in the mid-day sun, I would need to cover up, and use suntan lotion. We took the car.
New Zealand and Australia have the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. We (mostly) have temperate climates (if you can call Australia’s regular 40 degree plus temperatures temperate), and very active populations that spend a lot of time outdoors. The man-made ozone hole over Antarctica extends over New Zealand and parts of Australia. It is beginning to heal, but will not be healed until 2070. In the meantime, exposure to the sun in New Zealand brings real risks – risks that you do not see in Europe. Peak UV intensities in New Zealand are about 40% greater than at comparable latitudes in Europe. I shudder when I see Europeans baking in the sun in the northern hemisphere, smeared with oil, something that went out of vogue in New Zealand by the 1980s. Fair-skinned northern Europeans (and their descendants who have spread throughout the world) are at risk everywhere. Sunbathing and a tan – any tan – is a recipe for wrinkles and leathery skin, for freckles and moles, for skin cancer and death. I’m not being melodramatic. A friend of my husband’s, about our age, died of melanoma two years ago.
My father too died of metastasized non-melanoma skin cancer. I have his pale Irish skin and green eyes. I burned badly as a child and teenager when we didn’t really know any better, but I’m very cautious of the sun now. Sunscreen is essential – carried with me during summer, always in the car (I love the high SPF Neutrogena spray cans that go on and stay on dry), and I won’t buy a moisturiser or makeup that doesn’t have SPF protection. Hats too are important. If we’re going to be out for a long time, we might wear long sleeves, and a collar to protect the hard-to-cover back of our necks. Sitting outside for lunch is one of the joys of spring and summer, but I need shade. Huge umbrellas at a café table, or picnics under a tree, are perfect.
I get annual skin checks. Earlier this year my GP removed two moles, just to be careful. I have tried Mole Mapping, but frankly, I have so many moles and freckles, it seems like an impossible task. I try not to be too paranoid, but being conscious of the risk makes me alert and cautious. I hope that’s a sensible balance. Certainly, getting our skin checked regularly is the bare minimum we should do. Today’s National Skin Check Day campaign has reminded me it is time for my annual check.
Spring and summer. They bring light and warmth and hope. But they bring danger too. Beware!