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Shirtless farming?

Prevention is key when it comes to skin cancer. Just ask my farmer.

In May of 2018, I published a series of articles about melanoma and how important it is for farmers and ranchers, anyone who works outside, to protect their skin. I interviewed Ashley Sturgeon, a cotton farmer's wife and dermatologist at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, Lubbock. 

“You hear about melanoma being deadly and horrible and it certainly is, but if you catch it early a simple procedure could cure it. Once a month, check over your skin to make sure nothing is growing or changing and report any unusual behavior to a dermatologist immediately,” she said. 

See, Be sun safe as you head outdoors

Part of the series was attending a free skin cancer screening offered by Dr. Sturgeon and her colleagues. My farmer agreed to attend and allowed me to photograph the screening for my article. My farmer is red-headed and has worked on the farm his entire life, so he was the perfect candidate. 

While Dr. Sturgeon didn't find anything major, she did locate some spots that needed to be removed and encouraged him to make an appointment. He did.  

Since then, he has seen her faithfully every six months. Mostly, concerning spots are burned— it's quick and relatively painless. In February, just prior to his checkup, a sizeable bump surfaced on his neck. He assumed it was acne or ingrown hair. Dr. Sturgeon determined otherwise. The lump and a spot along his clavicle were removed and biopsied. 

Dr. Sturgeon's office called the following week. They didn't feel like they got it all, so my farmer returned to have more of the area removed and biopsied again.   

The good news is they got all of it on the second visit! And my farmer had two sets of stitches about the length of my middle finger to show for it. His spots were squamous cell carcinoma, a very common form of skin cancer. Once removed, those spots are cured. 

One of the places biopsied was along his clavicle. It contained dark spots. Dr. Sturgeon was concerned it was melanoma. Thankfully, the second biopsy revealed it was not.

I write about this for a couple of reasons. One, regular skin checkups for farmers and ranchers are important. My farmer is like most—he doesn't like to go to the doctor. But I'm so thankful he did, even if it was originally under the guise of an assignment. Dr. Sturgeon caught these spots at my farmer's six-month checkup. She says skin cancer can start small but if not detected or removed, can escalate. Detection is key.

Second, the spot on his clavicle had me puzzled. My farmer has always worn a shirt when he works outside. No shirtless farming on the Huguley Farm, just in case you were wondering. In fact, I can probably count on one hand how many times I've even seen him wear shorts, much less no shirt!

I asked Dr. Sturgeon how skin cancer could have developed on his his chest near his shoulder. She said unless he's wearing a shirt with UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor), it's like wearing nothing at all. She recommends the long-sleeved fishing or outdoor sporting shirts with a UPF factor of 30 or greater-- something her cotton farmer wears and the kind of shirts my farmer is sporting in this video.

UPF vs SPF

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, UPF measures the amount of UV radiation that can penetrate fabric and reach your skin. Sun Protection Factor, or SPF, is based on the time it takes for UV-exposed skin to redden; if you burn after 20 minutes, if used correctly, an SPF 15 sunscreen may protect your skin 15 times longer.

Another important distinction: UPF measures both UVB and UVA rays, while SPF measures only UVB, the website says.

Sun Safe

What makes clothing sun safe? According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the following factors should be considered when selecting a UPF garment:

  • Color: Dark or bright colors keep UV rays from reaching your skin by absorbing them rather than allowing them to penetrate. That’s why these colors offer better protection than lighter shades.
  • Construction: Densely woven cloth, like denim, canvas, wool or synthetic fibers, are more protective than sheer, thin or loosely woven cloth. Check a fabric’s sun safety by holding it up to the light. If you can see through, UV radiation can easily penetrate the fabric and reach your skin.
  • Content: The composition of your fabric really matters. Unbleached cotton contains natural lignins that act as UV absorbers. Shiny polyesters and even lightweight satiny silks can be highly protective because they reflect radiation. High-tech fabrics treated with chemical UV absorbers or dyes prevent some penetration from UV rays.
  • Fit: Loose-fitting apparel is preferable. Tight clothing can stretch and reduce the level of protection offered, as the fibers pull away from each other and allow more UV light to pass through.
  • UPF: Some clothing makers provide UPF labels, which indicate exactly how much of the sun’s rays the garment can shield. Look for our Seal of Recommendation whenever you shop.
  • Coverage: The more skin your outfit covers, the better your protection. Whenever possible, choose long-sleeved shirts and long pants or skirts.
  • Activity: Regardless of UPF, if your clothing gets stretched or wet, it will lose some of its protective ability and become more transparent, exposing your skin to more UV light.

If you're not in the field yet, make an appointment with a dermatologist today. And if you are in the field, a skin cancer screening is worth the time.

Sunscreen

Dr. Sturgeon recommends applying sunscreen daily, year-round, and reapplying every hour if sweating. Apply sunscreen to any surface exposed to the sun, especially the tip of your nose and tops of your ears and hands. "These are places you don't want to have to cut, so it's better to be able to take care of these preventatively. And these are places where sunscreen gets rubbed off easily."

Dr. Sturgeon says her husband doesn't like sunscreen cream, especially in the summer when he's covered in dirt, so he uses a spray. She also recommends sunscreen powder. Though the spray and powder may not get as good of coverage as lotions, but she said they do provide protection.

"When he's changing water in the summer, it's constant. When he takes a break to take a drink, then he's applying sunscreen," she said. 

Dr. Sturgeon recommends a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Keep a bottle where you slip on your boots each morning and one in your pickup or tractor.

And then before you leave the house each day, apply sunscreen. Dr. Sturgeon recommends a sunscreen with a SPF rating of 30 or greater. Apply it to high exposure spots like the tops of your ears and the tip of your nose but also the tops of your hands and arms. Reapply every one to two hours. And don't forget sunglasses with pigment protection.  

Getting started

Maybe the first step is checking your skin for unusual spots. Next? Make an appointment with a dermatologist. "Skin cancer can go from not a big deal to a really big deal in just a matter of months. So, get your skin checked and check yourself as often as you can," Sturgeon says. 

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