by Clare Bolds

Although I’ve always had a fair complexion, every year when the weather gets nice I am struck with an inexplicable feeling that my skin has magical properties that make it immune to sunburns. Every year, my delusion is shattered into a million pieces and I stock up on sunscreen. Then winter hits and I get sunburn amnesia once again, mentally building up to next spring’s annual charring.

A few weeks ago, some friends and I headed out into the sun for cocktails, hats, and horses – also known as Steeplechase. It was a chilly spring in Nashville, and this was the first time I planned to be outside all day in something other than a sweater.  My redheaded boyfriend slathered on sunscreen, urging me to do the same. I calmly explained that I would be fine, it was overcast anyway.

A week later my shoulders were still blistering.
Two weeks later I looked like a snake shedding it’s horrible, itchy skin.


As it turns out, you can get sunburned even on cloudy days. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 80% of those harmful UV rays can actually penetrate through cloud cover. Even worse, you increase your chances of developing cancer with every single sunburn. In fact, a person’s chances of contracting melanoma doubles if they have had five or more sunburns. I don’t know about you, but my record is looking pretty lousy right now.

So what exactly is melanoma? Melanoma is an aggressive form of skin cancer that originates in the cells that make the pigment melanin. Melanomas can sometimes form in moles you already have on your body, or they can appear one day as a seemingly harmless new mole or spot. If melanoma is detected early on, it can be treated relatively easily. However, if it is not recognized and removed in a timely fashion, it can be fatal.

Even people of color can get skin cancer. Although people with darker skin tones are less likely than Caucasians to develop melanoma, they have a greater chance of dying from it.

What can you do to avoid melanoma?

Obviously, don’t get burned. But since we all slip up sometimes, here are some other tips.

1. Make sure to be aware of the blemishes on your body, and make note of any new spots or moles that appear. If you are worried about developing skin cancer, you can go to a dermatologist to get your moles mapped so your doctor can help you keep track of those spots. Many people forget to check their backs for melanoma, so ask a friend or partner to take a look and see if there is anything suspicious in those hard to reach places.

2. Know the ABCDEs of skin cancer. They are:

  • A – Asymmetry: if you draw a line through the spot, do the two sides match?
  • B – Border: are the borders of the spot even? They should be.
  • C – Color: is the spot all one color, or are there multiple colors? Hope for a single color.
  • D – Diameter: if the spot has a diameter larger than a quarter of an inch, there may be a problem.
  • E – Evolving: Changes in color, shape, size, crusting, or itching are bad signs.

3. Know your family history. Has anyone in your family had melanoma before? If so, you are at a greater risk. Be extra cautious.

4. Use sunblock properly. Always shake the bottle well before applying. Use SPF 15 or higher. Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside or in the water, and reapply every 2 hours. If you are swimming, make sure to reapply every time you get out of the water. It may say waterproof, but you can never be too careful.

5. Use the Skin Caner Foundation’s guide to self-examination every month: http://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/early-detection/step-by-step-self-examination

Everybody gets sunburned occasionally. Even if you are one of those enviable bronze gods who only gets even tans, you are still getting some skin damage. This damage accumulates over time, and eventually it can come back to bite you.

All you can do is be aware of the danger, know your body, and remember to use sunscreen and cover up.

Next May, I will probably get another nasty burn to remind my body of the dangers of sun exposure. I’m not proud of it, but that’s life. At least this time around I was wearing a big hat – thank goodness for southern traditions!