"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.
"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."
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