May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and with more sunshine and summer right around the corner, dermatologists in Central Oregon say it's time for people to really make an effort to protect their skin. A Bend woman who battled the disease said Thursday she hopes her experience will inspire others to make an effort to stay healthy.
During her yearly skin checkup last October, ShanRae Hawkins, 35, had a shocking outcome.
"I got a call two weeks later that it was malignant melanoma. And I didn't know anything about melanoma at that time," said Hawkins. "And it really was an eye-opener."
Even though she hasn't used a tanning bed in 10 years, Hawkins said her time in the booth and under the sun could have caught up with her.
"I was shocked when I heard that I had melanoma, and I immediately had to do a lot of research," Hawkins said. "I thought skin cancer was something that older people got, and you cut it off and you were done."
Hawkins not only slathers on tons of sunscreen every day, but also visits her dermatologist every three months. And now, Hawkins said she wants to make a difference for others.
In a few weeks, she'll join the Melanoma Research Foundation on a trip to capitol hill. The group wants federal legislation banning teens under 18 from going to tanning beds, and they want more funding for skin cancer research and treatment.
"You have to do something with things that happen in your life, and for me, this seems like the right thing to do," said Hawkins.
Hawkins is also working on curriculum she wants to present to the Bend La Pine Schools. She hopes the message of staying safe in the sun reaches the classroom, so kids get a head start on healthy habits.
And many doctors agree it's a great thing to do.
"Most of us brush our teeth every day, and most of us put on our seat belts when we drive our cars," said Bend Memorial Clinic dermatologist Gerald Peters. "And sun safety is the same way. It's a matter of building your habit patterns until it becomes natural and second-nature."
Doctors say to keep safe, people should do their outdoor activities early in the morning or late afternoon. They should wear protective clothing, sunglasses and hats and apply the right sunscreen.
Dr. Peters said something with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide is best, because it has physical barriers built in.
And doctors said people should never lay out to tan.
"It's like smoking cigarettes," Peters said. "It's addictive to some degree and seems fashionable and doesn't seem to hurt right away. But it's only years and years later when your ability to breath is destroyed. Or the cancer starts and kills you, and destroys your family."
Hawkins caught the cancer before it could spread. And now she's learned a valuable lesson she wants to pass on.
"If one or two people start applying sunscreen and become smarter about being sun-aware, then we've done our job," said Hawkins.
Hawkins said she is working with her doctor at Deschutes Dermatology, and they're trying to set up a free skin cancer screening day.