Like so many anglers who grew up in the last half of the last century, I am now visiting my doctor annually to have pre-cancerous growths removed from my arms, legs, neck, hands and face.
But it could be worse — a lot worse — as the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that skin cancer now accounts for one in every three cancer diagnoses and one out of every five Americans will get the disease at some point in their lives.
Oh, yes, and if you're one of the many who think that skin cancer is somehow less than serious, you had better think again, because in North America someone dies from it every hour. More worrisome is the fact that melanoma — the most fatal form of skin cancer — is the fastest rising in America.
If all this doesn't make you straighten up and take notice, then consider this sobering thought from William Burke, Chief of Division of Dermatology at the Brody School of Medicine. "Always remember," says, Burke, "that when you are working on the water, you're also working on cancer."
What seems so hard to reconcile these days is that it wasn't long ago brown arms, a red neck, raccoon eyes and a tanned face were seen as a badge of honor amongst anglers. It meant you had spent many glorious hours out on the water. Today, however, you're more likely to be greeted by gasps of disbelief, if not outright horror. And for good reason.
The ozone layer that filters out the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays, protecting the Earth like a giant Realtree G2 Neck Gaiter is being depleted rapidly and with the loss of its filtering effects, skin cancer rates are soaring.
Indeed, what most anglers fail to appreciate is that almost every day they spend fishing, they are exposed to two different types of Ultra Violet (UV) radiation, namely UVA and UVB rays. (There is also a third villain, UVC rays that contain the most energy, but thankfully, these culprits rarely penetrate the atmosphere.)
UVA rays are less powerful than their counterparts, but they penetrate the skin much more deeply and damage its inherent DNA cell structure.
UVB rays, on the other hand, distress the skin's outer layer and are responsible for most of the sunburns we receive each summer. That is when they are the most intense, and we forget to apply sunscreen or wear protective clothing. These scoundrels also wreck havoc with our skin's DNA cell structure and are the principal cause of most skin cancers.
It is important to highlight, too, that when UVA and UVB rays damage our DNA, it triggers mutations that can lead the cells to multiply out of control rapidly, resulting in malignant tumors. And as bad as it for the public in general, it is doubly dangerous for anglers because water, sand and snow reflect the sun's rays and thus, increase our exposure to the harmful effects.
Bet you didn't know this, either: if your eyes are blue or green, you are at a greater risk to develop skin cancer than anglers with different colored eyes. Ditto, if you have fair skin, a family history of skin cancer and thus, a possible predisposition to the disease, and a saga of sunburns in your formative years.
Indeed, pay heed to skin cancer specialists and you hear a relentless, persistent, recurring theme. The disease is set in motion early in life and is of special concern for your children when they accompany you out on the water.
As a matter of fact, according to the World Health Organization, most anglers receive up to 80-percent of their lifetime exposure to UV radiation before their 18th birthdays. It is a frightening statistic, but no more so than the fact that frequent sun exposure and sunburn in childhood increase your risk of developing deadly melanoma later in life. And get this: a single sunburn in childhood greatly multiplies your risk of getting skin cancer as you grow older.
Understand what I am saying?
Allowing your children to get just one blistering sunburn this summer could set in motion something none of us want to even think about, years down the road.
So, let's not think about it, and let's focus instead on the simple preventative things we can do to ensure that the days we spend on the water are not only the best of times, but skin cancer risk free. And make no mistake about it, if we embraced these steps, the World Health Organization says four out of every five skin cancer cases would disappear.
The first precaution is simple.
As well as consulting the solunar tables, tide charts and weather forecast to predict the peak fishing periods every time we go fishing, we need to check the UV index and take safety measures when the levels are forecasted to be moderate or greater.
This includes shading our bodies by wearing a wide brimmed hat, tightly weaved clothing and 100-percent UV protective sunglasses and by popping up the Bimini top on our boats.
Applying sunscreen with an SPF factor of 30 or higher also seems prudent enough, and yet, Terry Slevin, Director of Education and Research at the Cancer Council of Western Australia, says, "There is lots of evidence that tells us that people generally apply too little sunscreen to achieve the protection rating on the label. "
According to skin cancer specialists like Slevin, most of us also have unrealistic expectations when we splash on sunscreen in the morning, before we leave to go fishing, thinking that we've somehow donned a bullet proof suit of sun armor that will protect us throughout the day.
It won't, unless we reapply it generously and constantly throughout the day.
And remember when you checked the UV forecast in the morning and it told you that the levels were going to reach their skin punishing maximum intensities around midday? That is the perfect time to pull into shore, and enjoy a cool, refreshing drink and relaxed lunch under the shade of a tall tree.
But there is more, much more, that you can do to enjoy a sun safe day on the water fishing, while greatly reducing your risk of developing skin cancer. And you can look darn good while you do it.