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The risk of skin cancer is easy to shrug off. Dean Graddon shares his story to remind us that it can happen to anyone

Skin cancer has always been top-of-mind for Dean Graddon.

“I knew from a very young age that I was a walking risk for skin cancer,” says Dean.

With light skin, eyes and hair, it was obvious to him that he was more vulnerable to the sun’s rays. Unfortunately, he was right.

Twelve years ago, Dean noticed a freckle on his thigh that was slowly growing and changing in appearance. Though it worried him, it was easy to dismiss. It wasn’t until he had to take his son to a clinic for a minor injury that he consulted a doctor.

“My son stepped on a nail, so I took him to a clinic,” says Dean. “While we were there, I showed the doctor my freckle. His eyes widened and he immediately referred me to a dermatologist.”

That first referral led to a biopsy — a tissue sample from the affected area — and then a frightening diagnosis: Dean had melanoma.

Melanoma is the deadliest of all skin cancers. It can spread to other parts of the body if not treated early, resulting in 1,200 deaths in Canada each year. The stress and worry of the diagnosis weighed on Dean and his family.

“I was a 30-something year old dad going for cancer surgery. It was difficult for me, but it also affected my wife and my children, who were only in elementary school,” says Dean.

Though he had to have a piece of this thigh removed, Dean was lucky. The cancer was caught early enough that he did not need any further treatment.

“After the surgery, I had 32 staples running down my leg,” says Dean.

Skin cancer cases in Canada are rising at an alarming rate. Cases of melanoma have increased three-fold since the 1980s, with 8,000 Canadians diagnosed each year. Though people with light skin, hair and eyes are at highest risk, anyone can develop the disease. Dr. Ivan Litvinov, dermatologist at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), is determined to educate Canadians about skin cancer risks.

“I don’t want to scare anybody,” Dr. Litvinov says. “Most people know best practices to protect their skin from the sun. Our goal is to get people to act on this knowledge.”

Dr. Litvinov encourages everyone to practice sun safety by wearing sunscreen, UV-protective clothing and hats, and staying out of the sun from 10am to 2pm, when the sun is highest in the sky. Though it’s tempting to get a tan, it’s a sign of skin damage and should be avoided.

“I want you to go out and enjoy the outdoors, just do so without getting a tan. Celebrate natural skin colour,” says Dr. Litvinov.

For those with lots of freckles and moles, Dr. Litvinov encourages inspections of your body every six months to look for changes in their appearance. He teaches his patients ABCDEs of melanoma. If a mole is Asymmetric, has an irregular Border, inconsistent Colour, a Diameter larger than six millimeters or its appearance is Evolving, it’s important to see a doctor.

It was a concerning mole that led Dean to discover his second case of skin cancer. While in the emergency room for a dog bite, he asked the doctor to take a look and was referred to Dr. Litvinov.

“Dr. Litvinov took one look and said ‘I’m not interested in that, but I am concerned about that’ and he pointed to this tiny spot about five inches away. It didn’t look like anything, but it turned out to be a stage 0 melanoma,” says Dean.

Stage 0 melanoma means that the cancer is only in the top layer of skin and has not penetrated any deeper. Thanks to Dean’s vigilance and Dr. Litvinov’s expert eye, it was removed before it could progress any further.

After two cases of skin cancer, Dean is careful to follow up regularly with Dr. Litvinov. As a school principal, he also educates his students about staying sun safe.

“I taught grade nine science for many years, and when we got to the section on human biology, I always shared photos of my experience with skin cancer. I wanted to make sure they could avoid such a life-altering experience,” says Dean.

Though it’s easy to shrug off skin cancer risk, Dean and Dr. Litvinov encourage everyone to be safe when spending a day in the sun. Sun safety is the best tool in your skin care routine—exposure to the sun can cause skin damage and premature aging. A moisturizer with SPF and a wide-brimmed hat go a long way toward keeping a healthy-looking complexion.

“People who expose themselves to the sun look much older than they are. Avoiding the sun can help keep you from aging prematurely,” says Dr. Litvinov.

In May 2022, the MUHC Foundation awarded Dr. Litvinov a $195,000 grant from the Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research to better understand and reduce skin cancer risk in young adults. You can be a part of this research! Take the SunFit survey, a five-minute questionnaire on sun safety behaviours and beliefs, at www.sunfit.ca. Your participation will help Dr. Litvinov advance his mission to improve sun safety in our community.