Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/7/2015 (1922 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Manitobans may complain it's too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter, but few of us ever gripe about the near-constant presence of the sun.
The southern reaches of the province boast some of the clearest skies in Canada. Winnipeg, for instance, enjoys a significant dose of sunshine 306 days out of every year.
As a result, Manitobans tend to be nonchalant about sun protection. Our frigid winters seem to compel us to soak up as much sun as we can during the short summer months.
While dermatologists and oncologists have spent decades trying to draw attention to the relationship between ultraviolet radiation and skin cancer, many of us continue to expose our flesh to the giant, thermonuclear fireball in the sky whenever the opportunity arises.
I say this without a trace of sanctimony, because I'm one of the morons who has sacrificed his epidermis for the sake of nothing more than being too lazy to put on sunblock.
I tend to spend more time outdoors than the average person, which is a risk factor for skin damage. But since I tend to tan easily and it's often too cold in Manitoba to feel the sun, I've spent far too many days outside without bothering to slather on sunblock or donning a wide-brimmed hat.
This cavalier attitude finally caught up to me in October, when I spent a week hiking in Colorado and New Mexico.
The first stop on the itinerary was Great Sand Dunes National Park in south-central Colorado, an amazing place that boasts North America's tallest hills of sand. The main attraction is a massive dune-field that abuts the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It takes a couple of hours to plod 235 metres from the base of the hills up to the top of dunes, sliding back one step for every two you climb.
There isn't a tree in sight on the dunes, which max out at 2,626 metres above sea level. But I scrambled up without a care in the world, oblivious to the fact the sun is roughly 10 per cent more intense every 300 metres you climb.
The next day, I headed south to New Mexico's Wild Rivers Recreation Area, a unit of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. I hiked down La Junta Trail into a gorge where the Rio Grande meets New Mexico's Red River. I then hiked along the water and climbed back up the Little Arsenic Trail to the top of an "island in the sky" plateau.
Almost the entire route was fully exposed to the sun. I had no idea then, but the damage had been done.
The next morning, I wound up with a deep sunburn on my cheeks, below the reflective surface of my sunglasses. It was no big deal, I thought when the discoloration persisted into November. Weird, I said to myself when my face remained bright red in December.
Uh oh, I murmured out loud when I remained a rosy-cheeked cherub in January, when friends and co-workers started asking whether I had just spent time in Mexico.
My face remained red and tender when spring returned to Winnipeg, and time in the sun started to become uncomfortable. I parked my butt in the doctor's office and admitted I screwed up.
A few months and a dermatologist visit later, I received a diagnosis: actinic keratoses, a form of skin damage that actually develops over many years when you fail to protect your skin.
Too much sun damages DNA in skin cells, causing them grow abnormally. This isn't cancer, but the condition precedes the big C in one in nine patients who don't take steps to remove the abnormal cells. Sometimes, it takes surgery, but I'll be peeling off part of my face with a chemotherapy cream in the fall, when the sun's intensity recedes.
So why share this personal information? The cautionary tale ought to serve as a punch in the posterior for anyone who goes outdoors without covering up with clothing as well as sunblock.
Actinic keratoses can precede squamous cell skin cancer, which can be painful and keep growing to the point where it causes permanent disfigurement. More often, too much sun leads to a case of basal cell skin cancer, which also causes pain and may cause permanent damage.
Both of these forms of cancers are carcinomas, which usually don't spread to other parts of the body. Even more dangerous are melanomas, which tend to spread aggressively and may kill you if they aren't treated.
Given the lack of care I've afforded my skin, I consider myself lucky to just have actinic keratoses. I'll spend a few days or weeks looking like a radiation-burn victim after treatment this fall, and that will probably be the worst of it.
Every day for the rest of my life, I'll paint my face with SPF 30 to 70 before I leave the house. I'll wear hats more often. I'll wear long sleeves and pants.
Consider doing the same, regardless of whether you paddle, hike, bike, climb, hunt, fish or simply sit around on the dock.
The sun is lovely, but you only need small doses of its affection.
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