By Jeff Burbrink
Extension Educator, Purdue, Extension Elkhart County
GOSHEN — You can hardly pick up a paper or listen to the radio or TV without hearing a warning about something that is going to kill you or make you sick. It gets to the point that you don’t pay attention anymore, at least until it affects you personally. That’s exactly what has happened in my case.
Last week, a friend told me she had several pre‑cancerous spots on her skin. While the outlook is very good, it sure made me do a lot of thinking.
My dad farmed for 40+ years in southern Indiana. Like his father and brothers who farmed, he had a lot of exposure to the sun over the years. He now goes to a dermatologist two or three times a year to have lesions removed. I have seen this type of condition on many of the farmers who I work with.
It’s a condition called actinic keratosis and is caused by exposure to the sun over the years. Typically, there are small rough spots that may be pink‑red or flesh colored. Most often, the spots develop on the face, ears, hands and arms and other sun exposed areas of the body. Most of the time, this condition does not lead to cancer, but it is a warning sign that the skin has been damaged by the sun and that you should be checked by a doctor regularly.
According to some information I received at the American Cancer Society internet site, farmers, gardeners, construction workers and others who work outdoors are most at risk for skin cancers due to the exposure to ultraviolet light. Men are more likely to develop a problem than women. The risk for skin cancer among whites is 20 times higher than for dark‑skinned African Americans due to the lesser amount of protective pigment in fair skin.
Exposure to certain types of chemicals including certain types of oils and pesticides may increase the risk.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve seen this type of spot on the faces of many farmers. It would be easy to dismiss this as a risk of doing business, but it can be reduced with a little extra effort.
The most important way to lower the risk of skin cancer is to reduce exposure to UV light. Protective clothing, including a shirt and a hat with a broad rim are the minimum. Fabric with a tight weave provides the best protection. The traditional baseball caps that farmers wear provide little protection from UV light.
Sunscreen lotions with an SPF factor of 15 or more should be used on areas of the skin exposed to the sun. Depending on the product, it may need to be reapplied several times daily to replace the sunscreen that rubs or sweats off.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that cloudy days are safer. Even on a cloudy day, 80 percent of the ultraviolet light can still reach the ground, and your skin. Sunscreen must be applied to your skin before exposure to the sun to be effective.
These skin conditions are not something to ignore. If you discover a suspect bump or discoloration on your skin, or if your spouse develops similar symptoms, it is time to go see your doctor or a dermatologist. Waiting can only make things worse.