Protecting Our Children From The Most Common Cancer

By: Jennifer Chaikin, RN-BC, MSN, MHA, CCRN Executive Director of Educational Initiatives,
Jennifer Chaikin, RN

Jennifer Chaikin, RN

Have you heard? There is a form of cancer out there that is affecting more than two million of us every year, has a higher incidence than breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers combined, and one in five of us will develop it within our lifetime!

I’m talking about skin cancer. As we all look forward to the warmth of the sun’s rays, we need to balance that fun in the sun with good protection from the damage it can do. The good news is that it is THE most preventable cancer.

My family and I were enjoying time in the sun and in the pool this spring break. We have always been vigilant with the use of sunscreen. My sister was diagnosed with melanoma when she was just 18, myself three years ago, and it runs rampant through my Irish English fair-skinned side of the family.

But this time we found it quite difficult to convince the kids to keep the sunscreen on. (Remember when you could papoose or bribe them and slather it all on? Can’t do THAT now). And the complaints! “I hate the cream! My face looks like a ghost! It’s too thick! I feel sticky! But it’s cloudy!” Ahhh … tweenagers.

So what are parents to do? How can we protect our kids when they need to be outside? Fifteen percent of kids are overweight or obese, so we need to get them outside and moving, right? Is it possible to practice good sun safety and at the same time enjoy a healthy, physically fit lifestyle and have fun without the sunscreen battles? I say yes.

Let’s start with a few facts:

  • There is such thing as pediatric melanoma. 90% occur in patients ages 10-19, and while most occur in Caucasians, 6.5% occur in non-Caucasians.
  • A person’s risk for melanoma doubles if he or she has had more than five sunburns at any age. One person dies of melanoma every hour.
  • Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer.

As I mentioned, my tweens are bucking the rules of sunscreen use. It is not always easy to manage, but I started by informing them that being tan does not mean being healthy. I quickly realized they still might not adapt to the rules and now that they are older, the focus must be less about us protecting them and more on teaching them how to protect themselves. Empower them to be in control of their health.

Here are some ideas:

  • It’s like brushing your teeth! Make sunscreen application part of the daily routine. Keep the sunscreen visible and within reach in the bathroom as a physical reminder. With my older daughter, I bought her daily facial moisturizer that has SPF 30. Make sure sunscreen is in their backpacks or equipment bag if the child is involved in outdoor sports activities.
  • Self-tanners: New self-tanning lotions and creams look like a natural tan (much less orangey than they used to be) without exposing skin to the harmful UV rays.
  • Accessorize! Hats, sarongs, sunglasses!  Let them choose what they like, provided they provide UV protection.

Prevention Basics

Use a water resistant, broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher 30 minutes before going outside. 
Reapply every two hours or immediately after swimming or excessive sweating. Don’t forget to protect ears, noses, lips, and the tops of feet! Sunscreen alone is not enough, so:

  • Seek the shade, especially between 10 AM and 4 PM. Clouds don’t matter. We still need protection. UV rays do come through clouds- no matter what my tweenagers want to believe.
  • Do not burn. Unprotected skin can be damaged by the sun’s UV rays in as little as 15 minutes ( However, a lot of us have had the experience of coming in from the sun and THEN noticing the redness. That is because it can take up to 12 hours for skin to show the full effect of sun exposure. So when skin is “a little pink”, its time to get out of the sun.
  • Avoid tanning booths. These are bad news. Period. Two to three million teens use tanning booths every year. Just one indoor tanning session increases users’ chances of developing melanoma by 20 percent, and each additional session during the same year boosts the risk almost another two percent. Just don’t let them do it.
  • Cover up with clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat (boys may find this difficult, so a ball cap is a good compromise) and UV-blocking sunglasses.
  • Keep newborns out of the sun. Sunscreens should be used on babies over the age of six months and those under six months should not be exposed to direct sunlight, as their skin does not yet have protective melanin. Even everyday exposure needs to be considered. Strollers or carriages must have a canopy, infant sized sunglasses and hats should be worn. At the beach? Include proper protective clothing and a pop up beach tent: Coolibar has great items that I highly recommend.
  • Examine your child’s skin head-to-toe every month or teach them how to do it themselves. Diagnosis and treatment is delayed in up to 40 percent of childhood melanoma cases, so see your practitioner every year for a professional skin exam.

So the good news is kids can still get outside and enjoy the sun.  We just have to help them be smart about sun safety. The most important thing we can do to help them be smart is to be their role model and advisor. If parents and caregivers practice these rules, it will become part of our kids routine and less of a fight. If you practice sun safety, so will they!


The Skin Care Foundation

Skin Quiz

National Cancer Institute


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