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In the skin of a dermatologist

By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun

Keep covered up. Use sunscreen. Stay in the shade. These are some of the messages dermatologists are conveying to the public during Sun Awareness Week 2003, which kicked off on June 2 and continues through to June 8.

It's easy to be cynical. After all, our ancestors spent far more time out in the open air than we do. They may have worked in the fields or hunted in the forests. They rode horses or travelled by foot. And they didn't have factor-30 sunscreen to protect them.
Dr. Lynn From

"Actually, melanoma can be traced back thousands of years. But in the old days most people were smart and covered up," says Dr Lynn From, a dermatologist and skin pathologist at the Women's College site of Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre.

"Only in the last century people decided that a tan, or getting out into the sun, is healthy for them when it's not. Also in Victorian England, you didn't see a lot of people running around with not a lot of clothes on like we do today. It was common sense to cover up."

The sun can cause a variety of skin cancers, but the focus of this year's Sun Awareness Week is melanoma. The Canadian Dermatology Association hopes to inform the public and health practitioners about how to spot these malignant tumours on the skin.

According to Dr. Cheryl Rosen, head of dermatology at the Toronto Western Hospital and Ontario regional director for Sun Awareness Week, many general practitioners will check blood pressure or diabetes, but forget to look for skin problems.

"When I talk to people in medicine, I say 'when you're listening to the chest, don't close your eyes!' More people see family doctors than dermatologists. So we want other doctors to know what makes a mole a concern," Rosen says.

It's important to know who is most at risk, Dr. From says. She says redheads are four times more likely to get melanoma than the general population. Freckled people face double the risk. Those with more than 75 moles are 10 times more likely to get this type of cancer.

While this is a disease that often strikes people in their 20s and 30s, men older than 65 are also very vulnerable, especially if they don't have a partner to help them recognise any unusual looking moles.

"In women, melanoma often appears on the back of the legs and on the back. Men often get it on their backs. So I tell doctors that if they can't examine the whole patient, they should at least look at these two places," From says.

"If you pick up a melanoma early, chances are the person's cured forever," she continues. "But if not, they can die from it. So what we're saying this week is that the skin is important and it deserves a little look see."

(Susan Poizner ( is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)

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