SALT LAKE CITY — Pool days are coming to a close with the start of school approaching, but the sun is still shining and the risk of developing a deadly form of skin cancer is very real. One South Jordan man knows firsthand.
Chip Hlavacek and his wife, Debra Hlavacek, love riding bikes, but before they hit the pavement, they cover themselves in sunscreen and protective clothing.
Chip Hlavacek learned the hard way what happens when you don't take precautions to protect yourself from the sun's rays. He spent 20 years as a Marine under the sun and never bothered with sunscreen or a hat. “Being in the military, I’ve always had short hair,” he described.
“Takes too much time. It’s too messy,” he reasoned.
Several years ago while on vacation, he suffered a bad burn on his head. “It just sizzled. It cooked my scalp. I literally had blisters on my scalp,” he said.
Chip Hlavacek said he put some lotion on the burn and never saw a dermatologist. He didn't think much about it until he noticed an irregular spot on his head two years later.
"I thought that the bump on the top of my head was an ingrown hair," he said. However, after a biopsy, Hlavacek was diagnosed with aggressive melanoma.
“I looked over at my wife, she had tears in her eyes and I went, ‘Oh, we might have a problem here,’" he remembered. He used to think skin cancer was something that could be easily removed with little repercussions.
To his surprise, he had to endure several invasive surgeries on his scalp and his neck. “It was an open wound bigger than a coke can on the top of my head," he said. He also had 44 lymph nodes removed in his neck and had to go through immunotherapy every three weeks for an entire year.
Fortunately, today Chip Hlavacek is healthy. Intermountain Healthcare's Dr. Tawny Bowles says melanoma is preventable.
“If you have an SPF of 30, that's going to block nearly 100%, is about 97%, of the whole harmful rays from the sun," she said. Bowles said in order for sunscreen to be effective, however, it must be reapplied every couple hours.
She said sunscreen with an SPF greater than 30 won’t give much additional protection, however, she encourages people to keep using it if they’ve found something they like.
Bowles urges people to screen their moles often for change in size, shape or color. She said melanoma often takes form in a mole, “but some melanomas are not brown or black. They can be pink or purple or even flesh color, but look funny and different.”
She said early diagnoses can prevent melanoma from spreading to other organs. Today the Hlavaceks don’t take chances.
“I don't care what the UV is, I think you need to put it on morning, afternoon, night whenever,” Debra Hlavacek said.
Chip Hlavacek always wears long pants and either sports a floppy or baseball hat to cover his head.
Bowles suggested trying zinc oxide as a mineral-based sunscreen option if you are concerned about added chemicals in mainstream sunscreen brands. Easiest of all, Bowles urges people to stay away from tanning beds which could greatly increase their risk for melanoma.