Cover Up

Lead Line — November 2000
Lead Line — November 2000
By Richard Thiel

Cover Up
Your eyes are at risk from the sun, too.
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This time of year most of us are thinking more about turkey and presents than fun in the sun, but this may be the ideal time to consider one aspect of boating that’s often ignored once the season is in full swing. It is a topic of which I unfortunately have some firsthand knowledge.

About six months ago, my doctor discovered a small mark–really just a freckle–on my left shoulder. He removed it and sent it out for biopsy, which identified it as skin cancer–not just any skin cancer, but melanoma, the potentially fatal version. He announced that it was in the very early stages and so a relatively minor threat to my continued existence, but nevertheless removed a fair size of real estate, leaving a six-inch-long scar in its place.

Like you, I’ve spent most of my life on the water, much of it without shirt or hat. I’ve been sun-tanned, sun-bronzed, sun-burned, and sun-poisoned, and according to my doctor, it shows. Since my melanoma, I’ve been a good deal more diligent about covering up and protecting myself, but because the effects of sun exposure are cumulative, I’m an excellent candidate for more melanoma even if I stay out of the sun. I’m no expert on this malady, but I’ve done some research on it, and some of what I found is pretty scary for us boaters and especially for those who have children.

It’s estimated that 1.3 million cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed in 2000, of which about 48,000 will be melanomas. Of those, about one in seven will be fatal. That’s not exactly an epidemic (although mortality is increasing from three to six percent annually), but it’s important to remember that melanoma typically afflicts the young and those in their prime. It is the most common cancer in women between the ages of 25 and 29 and is second to breast cancer in women ages 30 to 34. For men, the highest statistical risk comes after the age of 40.

Water reflects more than 85 percent of the UV rays that cause skin cancer, so if your idea of sun protection is a hat or bimini top or even wearing long-sleeve clothing, reconsider your strategy. Most skin cancers occur on the facial area, and many appear in two often-overlooked locations: the backs of the hands and the lips. The nature of both locations is that even if one does apply sunscreen to them (and the lips are frequently overlooked), it quickly wears off, so frequent reapplications are important.

Speaking of sunscreen, most everyone knows what SPF means: The number is a multiple of the time you could stay in the sun unprotected without burning. Most dermatologists recommend sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 15, but a lot of boaters figure higher numbers mean they can stay out all day and opt for ratings as high as SPF 60. However, many dermatologists believe any rating above SPF 30 is meaningless, so the extra 30 points are just false security.

And while skin is the area of greatest concern, your eyes are at risk from the sun, too. More than 10 percent of all cataracts operated on are thought to have been caused by excessive sun exposure. Prolonged exposure can also cause malignant and benign growths of the eye, and it is responsible for more than 90 percent of all cancers of the eyelid. Proper protection includes a pair of wraparound sunglasses rated to the UV-blocking standards of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

Really, though, with a fading ozone layer, sunblock and shades alone won’t protect you and your children from skin cancer. If you and they are going to be out on the water, you need to make sun avoidance a part of your float plan. And now is the perfect time to think about how to do that.

This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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