A Place in the Sun

Along with his tennis equipment, Ken Welch carries sunscreen in his tennis bag. And he uses it regularly if he’s going to be playing outside for several hours.

The 62-year-old Mahomet man wasn’t always so careful about protecting himself from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. He was a competition water skiier in high school, and he didn’t give sunscreen a second thought.

But 15 years ago, he had a basal cell carcinoma removed from his right shoulder. Since then, he’s been more vigilant about sunscreen.

“I got lots and lots of sun (in the past), especially on my shoulders, so I always slather that area up,” Welch said.

Athletes who spend a lot of time training outdoors are particularly at risk for skin cancer, according to a study from last summer. And it’s not only summer athletes. The study noted that skiiers and snowboarders receive a lot of sun exposure due to the high altitude and reflections off snow and ice.

A 2006 study showed marathon runners had a higher risk of skin cancer than non-runners, most likely due to extensive sun exposure during long training runs. Marathoner Deena Kastor, who won the bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics, has been treated several times for skin cancers, including melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer.

PGA Tour golfer Brian Davis has been treated for non-melanoma skin cancers, and he’s now part of the Skin Cancer Foundation’s Team SCF, a group of athletes promoting an awareness of skin cancer and how to prevent it.

Dr. Lester Fahrner, a dermatologist at Christie Clinic, sees many endurance and recreational athletes in his practice, as well as folks who spend the weekend fishing at Clinton Lake or hanging out at the beach.

It’s not just the athletes getting a lot of sun exposure, Fahrner said. It’s also their parents, sitting through swim meets or baseball tournaments.

Often people aren’t merely being careless or indifferent about sun protection, he said. They just end up outside longer than they expect.

“Every week somebody says, ‘I didn’t realize it was going to go extra innings, so we were out there an extra hour. We didn’t realize it was a doubleheader until we got there,’” he said.

Fahrner said there are three main things to consider to protect against skin cancer:

-- Time of day
You’ll get the most direct rays from the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., Fahrner said.

“If you can possibly do your training earlier or later, you’ll be better,” he said. “Most people train earlier or later, just because of traffic or heat. The time of day makes a really, really big difference.”

-- Clothing
Many outdoor and athletic clothing stores offer clothing with sunscreen built into the fabric.

“SPF-rated clothes are awfully comfortable and awfully useful,” he said, noting that athletes who are sweating or in the water will wear off their sunscreen.

Welch hasn’t tried the SPF-rated clothing. But on a recent warm and humid Saturday morning, he wore long sleeves while playing tennis for three hours.

“My arms were pretty red after I’d been to the pool the day before,” he said. His tennis partners “were kind of making fun of me for wearing a long-sleeved shirt, but I’ll let them go ahead and make fun of me.”

Fahrner recommends wearing a hat, particularly one with a flap covering the back of the neck. And one piece of gear that is often overlooked is sunglasses that block ultraviolet light.

“It turns out that UV light causes cataracts as part of the aging process, as well as sun damage of the retina,” Fahrner said.

Sunglasses will also protect the delicate skin around your eyes, he said.

-- Sunscreen
Welch, who’s been a tennis player nearly all his life and began doing triathlons 10 years ago, uses SPF 45 and he buys waterproof sunscreen because he sweats a lot while playing tennis.

You should re-apply it every two hours, especially if you are sweating or in the water, Fahrner said.

“None of them are truly waterproof, but many of them are water-resistant,” he said.

He recommends sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide because they last longer and rarely cause an allergic reaction. The newer versions of sunscreen with those ingredients don’t leave a white residue, Fahrner said.

Most people don’t apply enough sunscreen. Fahrner said you should use two ounces to cover your entire body -- that’s about two shot glasses worth of sunscreen.

If you are working out and sweating a lot, consider using a lip balm with sunscreen around your eyes and on your forehead, so you don’t get the lotion in your eyes when you sweat. And don’t forget to put it on your lips too.

“I do see a lot of lip carcinomas from chronic sun exposure,” Fahrner said.

Photo below: Ken Welch applies sunscreen before a round of tennis at Atkins Tennis Center in Urbana.

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Christine des Garennes wrote on July 13, 2010 at 8:07 am

Another form of protection is to wash your clothes in Rit Sun Guard, a laundry treatment. Our dermatologist at Carle recommends this and you can buy it at the Windsor Road clinic here in town.

Jodi Heckel wrote on July 13, 2010 at 9:07 am
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Thanks for the suggestion! Sounds like that would be really useful for white t-shirts, as you can still get a sunburn through them.