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Florencio Rodriguez was 15 when this photo was taken of him harvesting onions in Michigan in 1954.

Sun downs

August 2007

by Natalie Gutierrez

Florencio Rodriguez remembers his childhood summer days vividly. "Shade was scarce," he said, recalling merciless heat waves rippling in the distance. Rodriguez was only 9 years old in 1948 when he began harvesting onions, carrots and beets as a migrant farmworker in the vast fields of Sheridan, Michigan. He did it five days a week every summer until he was 18 to help support his nine brothers and sisters.

"We had to survive, so this was my summer job," he said. "Sometimes I’d wear a hat. I’d start out wearing a shirt in the morning, but I’d take it off as the day went on because it was so hot. I paid for it later, though. First, my skin would blister and then it would peel."

Several years later, a successful college graduate, Rodriguez thought he’d left those harsh memories behind. But in 1985 a routine trip to his dermatologist proved his experiences as a child had come back to haunt him.

A small nodule on his left cheek tested positive for basal cell carcinoma - a type of skin cancer.

Why a day in the sun could be deadly

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are the two most common types of skin cancer. Each year, more than 10,000 people die from skin cancer.

Some experts believe that 80 percent of skin damage occurs before the age of 18.

"A child’s health may be at risk later in life because of the link between childhood sunburns and skin cancer," said Reza Ghohestani, M.D., Ph.D., chief of the division of dermatology and cutaneous surgery. "Ultraviolet (UV) light emitted by the sun has a lot to do with skin cancer and is the main cause of wrinkles and skin discolorations. Children under 2 years of age should be kept indoors because their skin is so sensitive."

Melanoma, the third most common skin cancer, is more dangerous especially among young people.

"People with darker skin tend not to sunburn as easily as those with fair skin," Dr. Ghohestani said. "But that doesn’t mean they can’t get skin cancer or suffer from UV damage. Protection from the sun is vital for everyone. Have suspicious lesions checked by a doctor. Letting them go undetected and untreated could possibly be fatal."

Experts at the Health Science Center say that learning to prevent skin cancer is essential, but that people should also be aware that the disease is treatable if detected early.

  Florencio Rodriguez, 67, survived skin cancer. He is pictured with his great-grandson Thomas Howell III.
Florencio Rodriguez, 67, survived skin cancer. He is pictured with his great-grandson Thomas Howell III.

"We offer a number of treatments depending on the type and size of the cancer and the location on the body," Dr. Ghohestani said. One of those is the Mohs micrographic surgical procedure, a state-of-the-art method that relies on the combination of microscopic detection and surgical removal to ensure that all traces of diseased tissue are removed, leaving healthy skin intact. Its potential 90 percent to 95 percent cure rate gives it the highest success rate of any skin cancer treatment available.

Fortunately for Rodriguez, his doctor caught and removed his cancer in its early stages. He’s been cancer free ever since.

"All of that exposure to the sun set me up for cancer later," he said. "I didn’t know anything about sunscreen back then, but I certainly use it now."

Nowadays, Rodriguez, 67, performs self-checks and visits his dermatologist on a regular basis. As a caring grandfather and great-grandfather, Rodriguez tells his grandchildren to wear sunscreen no matter how long they’ll be in the sun. "Thankfully, my children don’t have to work outdoors like I did. But I still remind them to wear sunscreen anytime they’ll be exposed to the sun. My grandsons play baseball, so I tell them to put it on during practice and on game days. I want them to learn healthy habits that will benefit them in the long run."


  • More Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other cancers combined.

  • 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.

  • Most of the more than 1 million cases of nonmelanoma skin cancer diagnosed yearly in the United States are considered to be sun-related.

  • 15 minutes of sun a day is enough to assist the human body in producing Vitamin D. Otherwise, avoid too much sun.

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Sunscreen Update
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Updated 12/11/14