Sometimes the ‘she’ll be right’ attitude just doesn’t cut it. Josh Darby provides some timely thoughts on one of the most overlooked but pressing issues for fishermen – sun protection.
It is hard to beat the quintessential Kiwi summer: BBQs, cold beers, long summer days and temperamental snapper fishing – okay, so it’s not all good! However, despite the slowed snapper fishing, I look forward to these summer months with great anticipation, excited at the opportunity to get out on the water, catch a few fish and lap up the sunshine. For many years, I’ve spent the summer months exploring the upper parts of Aotearoa in search of snapper, kingfish and the odd game fish. For the most part, I’ve done this in smaller boats with limited protection from the harsh summer sun, and often in attire consisting of only the bottom half. It’s fair to say that on more than one occasion I’ve been late with the sunscreen application – paying for my transgression with a sleepless night trying to find a position that would not aggravate a now painfully red complexion. Despite this, I had continued to adopt the ‘she’ll be right’ attitude – that is until more recently when I was confronted with one of the very real risks of fishing through the summer months in our country.
Gone are the days when the writer would fish the whole day with his shirt off.
A few years ago, my good friend, fellow fisherman and work colleague – James Young – let me know he wouldn’t be able to make an upcoming fishing trip as he was feeling a bit under the weather. I didn’t think too much of it as James was a young man and he was also extremely fit. In fact, I did what most good friends would do and gave him a hard time for the late fishing trip withdrawal. Roughly three weeks later James was dead, leaving behind his wife and three young boys. He passed away from melanoma cancer – a particularly aggressive form of cancer, where the lead risk factor is exposure to the sun. Like myself, James had spent lots of time in the sun, often playing sport or fishing with minimal sun protection. I was devastated by the loss, and my sense of vulnerability was at an all-time high – the ‘she’ll be right’ attitude took a significant blow.
James Young, an avid fisherman who passed away from melanoma skin cancer.
This tragedy became a catalyst for a change in my own behaviour. I’ve still been caught out in the sun too often, but I now go for annual mole check-ups. To date, I’ve had two suspicious moles cut out because of those check-ups, including one very recently. The wait for the lab results can be excruciating but it can also be cause for reflection, with this article a consequence of those times. Luckily for me, biopsies of these moles showed that they were free of cancer, however, this is not the case for a concerning number of Kiwis – men especially.
The writer, post suspicious-mole-removal on his neck.
New Zealand has high rates of sunburn compared to other countries, accounting, in part, for us joining Australia as the countries with the highest rates of melanoma in the world – a dubious honour. In fact, 50% of all Kiwis will experience skin cancer in their lifetime, with melanoma being the leading cancer for males aged 25 to 44 years of age.
One of the factors likely to contribute to our high rates of skin cancer is the strength of our ultraviolet radiation (UVR); that is, the ability to cause sunburn. It’s roughly 40% higher than other places with similar latitudes in the northern hemisphere. While Kiwis, in general, are at higher risk of skin cancer, the average Kiwi fisherman faces an even greater risk given our favourite pastime significantly increases exposure to harmful UVR (in fact, research shows that reflections from the water and sand can increase UVR). Therefore, we need to be especially aware of the risks and what we can do to minimise them. To help understand what steps we can take to reduce our risk of sunburn and skin cancer, I read up on recommendations from a number of leading skin cancer prevention authorities and also had a doctor review this article.
The following advice will give us fishermen some assistance in reducing our risk of skin cancer and in particular, melanoma.
Firstly, it is important to be aware of the risk factors for skin cancer. These are:
• One or more severe sunburns, especially from when young
• Large, irregularly shaped and coloured moles
• Large numbers of moles
• Previous skin cancers
• A family history of melanoma in a parent, sibling or child.
• Fair skin, and fair or red hair
• Use of sunbeds, especially if you are young
While some of these risk factors are beyond our control, it is important to understand that we can do something about the predominate risks – exposure to UVR and sunburn. Obviously, staying permanently indoors would help reduce these factors, however, this is not an option for us fishermen, nor should it be. There are plenty of benefits that come from being active outdoors, both physical and psychological. Yet, this time spent outdoors comes at a considerable risk, especially in summer. So, with the evidence suggesting that the best way to reduce our risk of skin cancer is by reducing our exposure to UVR, what practical steps can we take to reduce this exposure?
Wear sun-protective clothing and glasses
In recent years there has been an increase in the availability of sun-protective clothing designed specifically for fishermen. Locally, this has included the brand Just Another Fisherman, who has developed an excellent Angler Tech clothing range that is functional, looks good and, most importantly, provides UPF 40 sun protection. Other brands such as Simms and Ocean Angler offer sun protective clothing including UPF neck gaiters for covering the face and UPF gloves for hand protection.
The writer's fishing buddy, John, covered head to toe.
The regular application (every two hours or more often if sweating, swimming or towel drying) and appropriate use of sunscreen (applied to the neck, face, ears, scalp if uncovered, and all other parts of the body not covered by clothing) that is at least SPF 30, broad-spectrum and water-resistant, has been proven to reduce the risk of skin cancer. So, if you’re out on the boat or fishing from the bricks, make sure you have some with you and apply it early and regularly.
Consider boats that provide some form of shade. This may include a T-top, as is the case with centre consoles, or shade extensions for hard top boats.
The addition of a T-top to a centre console provides some much-needed shade.
While prevention is still the best cure, early detection of skin cancer can greatly improve one’s prognosis. That is why it is vital that fishermen know what to be on the lookout for and are diligent in checking themselves and also getting regular mole checks from a health professional.
New moles, spots, or freckles While it is true that we should be on the lookout for changes in an existing mole, spot or freckle, the first sign of melanoma is often the appearance of a new mole, spot or freckle.
Existing moles, spots, or freckles These should be checked regularly, keeping an eye out for changes in colour, shape or size and those that differ from your other spots (an ‘ugly duckling’ mole). Also, watch for moles that are itchy or sometimes bleed, and also those that become raised quickly.
If you find any suspicious spots, freckles or moles you should make sure you book in to to see a GP or specialist, such as a dermatologist. These professionals have experience and specialised tools that can help with the detection of skin cancer. Though it is important to take the responsibility of checking for suspicious spots yourself, it is also vital to get regular mole check-ups with an appropriate health professional. They can then assess your individual risk factors and let you know how often you should come back for a check-up.
Hopefully, this article has given cause for thinking about how we as fishermen can minimise our risk of skin cancer this summer and for summers to come. I know from my own experience it can be difficult to acknowledge, for us men in particular, that we are not invulnerable and need to be wise regarding how we go about looking after our greatest resource – our health. The reality of skin cancer in New Zealand means that this is not a risk we can ignore. Sadly, a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude is potentially leading to numerous preventable deaths each year. The good news is that the majority of skin cancers are preventable and if detected early, the prognosis is often good. So, let’s all take some steps this summer to minimise our exposure to UVR, while keeping a lookout for new or suspicious spots. And please, if you haven’t already, book yourself in to see a health professional and get a mole check. By doing these few things, we can give ourselves the best chance of being around to enjoy our favourite pastime for many more years to come and also be here a lot longer for the people that we love.
For more information on skin cancer, you can check out sunsmart.org.nz, which was one of the resources used to inform this article.
This article is reproduced with permission of