Melanoma Survivor Practices, Preaches Sun Safety

"I'm tweeting, Facebooking, talking to anyone I see, and driving people nuts. I'm obnoxious, but I don't care. Man, I wish I hadn't lain out in that stupid sun; it's so not worth it."

Janet Cherry Hughes
photo of Janet Cherry Hughes and her three daughters

Melanoma survivor Janet Cherry Hughes says she is a woman on a mission to tell every young person she can to use sunscreen, reapply it after swimming, and limit time in the sun. “I’m tweeting, Facebooking, talking to anyone I see, and driving people nuts. I’m obnoxious, but I don’t care. Man, I wish I hadn’t lain out in that stupid sun; it’s so not worth it.”

At least 3 young people who’ve heard Hughes’ message have taken it to heart – her 3 daughters, ages 23, 20, and 18. They all used to go tanning and lie out in the sun until their mother was diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer.

Hughes was in her 50s in March 2013 when she visited a dermatologist for the first time in her life. Several of her friends go every year for skin checks and suggested Hughes, who has light skin, hair and eyes – which increase the risk of skin cancer – go, too. At first, Hughes disregarded their advice. She said, “I’m not going to the doctor for no reason.” But eventually, she said, she went to “shut my friends up.”

“And thank God I did,” said Hughes. “I later told my friends: ‘You saved my life.’”

Melanoma is a big deal.

The dermatologist noticed 2 suspicious spots on Hughes’ skin, one on her leg and one on her arm. Hughes says she had thought they were just freckles. The doctor removed (biopsied) the spots and sent them to a lab to test them for cancer. A few days later, the doctor called Hughes and told her the spot on her arm was melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer. Hughes took the news calmly. She had always heard skin cancer was “no big deal” and thought it could be easily removed.

Like many people, Hughes did not know there are many different types of skin cancer. The most common types are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. They tend to grow slowly and are almost always very treatable.

Melanoma, the kind Hughes had, is less common, but more serious than the other types. While melanoma is almost always curable in its early stages, it is much more likely than basal or squamous cell skin cancer to spread to other parts of the body if not caught early.

Luckily, Hughes’ melanoma was caught before it spread. But she had to undergo surgery that removed a lot of tissue from her arm. She has a large scar and will have to return to the dermatologist every 3 months for at least 5 years for a full body check. In between, she will have to check her own skin regularly and have anything suspicious removed and biopsied immediately. She now wears sunscreen every day.

Be safe in the sun.

Hughes blames her cancer on the hours she spent lying in the sun as a child, teenager, and young woman, and the many sunburns she got as a result. She did it because she liked the way she looked when the burn turned to tan. She didn’t realize the damage the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays were doing to her skin. “Your younger years are when the damage happens,” said Hughes. “But when you’re young, you always think nothing bad will ever happen.”

UV rays – from the sun and other sources like tanning beds – are a major cause of skin cancer. Too much exposure can also cause sunburn, eye damage and premature wrinkles. But shielding your skin with clothing, broad-spectrum sunscreen of sun protection factor (SPF) 30 or higher, and shade can help lower your risk.

The American Cancer Society recommends these steps to stay sun-safe:

  • Cover up: When you are out in the sun, wear clothing and a wide-brimmed hat to protect as much skin as possible. Protect your eyes with sunglasses that block at least 99% of UV light.
  • Use a broad spectrum sunscreen with SPF of at least 30: Be sure to reapply at least every 2 hours, as well as after swimming or sweating.
  • Seek shade: Limit your direct exposure to the sun, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV rays are strongest.
  • Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps: Both can cause serious long-term skin damage and contribute to skin cancer.

Spreading the word

After her diagnosis, Hughes found information about skin cancer on cancer.org. She said, “I wanted to go somewhere reputable, a site I knew was medically correct and factual. Even at my age, I didn’t know the differences between the different types of skin cancer.”

She speaks to the youth group at her church to spread her message about sun safety and warn of the consequences for young people who don’t protect their skin.

Hughes said, “Sometimes when you’re 20 you really don’t care what’s going to happen when you’re 50. But knowledge is power. If they know the dangers, then they can be careful.”

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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