Family: They are my sunshines

Ahead of skin cancer awareness week, some pointers on keeping your children healthy.

We enjoyed a glorious Independence Day last week. We packed the four kids into our trusty minivan and visited relatives on Kibbutz Ein Gedi. There the three older kids enjoyed a frolic on inflatable bouncy slides - in water! It was a temperate day, hot with a gentle caressing breeze. And the sun was shining. For most, watching their kids romp in the sunshine is a pleasure. I get anxious. I am an overprotective mother: I dress my children in long sleeves when most of their friends are already in shorts and T-shirts. I smother them in sunscreen when we go to the beach, and I make them wear hats on all family outings. It'll be a while before I let baby Michal's skin see the sun. I'm not just a regular Jewish mother: My older brother Nick died almost 14 years ago from skin cancer. He would have been 36 last week. He was lean, handsome and often seen in the company of beautiful, often blonde, girlfriends. As a teen he spent hours grooming in front of the mirror - and more hours sitting in the sun, getting some color. I remember him slathering on baby oil and holding one of those reflector devices to intensify and even out his tan. He lived for the moment, in the moment. After joining the US military, he complained of headaches off and on while serving as a translator in Korea. Finally, shortly after his 22nd birthday, he was diagnosed with melanoma. He died a few months later. NEXT WEEK is dedicated to skin cancer awareness in Israel. According to the Israel Cancer Society, "Children who were born in Israel, or the children of immigrants (from the former Soviet Union, Europe, the US, North Africa, etc.) are at higher risk for skin cancer than their parents or grandparents who made aliya as adults. Being out in the burning sun, especially as young children, is the leading cause of developing skin cancer and melanoma." My kids fit five of the top 10 high-risk groups. In addition to Nick, both my grandmothers and my only two uncles have also had skin cancer. Living in Israel could be hazardous to my children's health. During the summer, the Israel Cancer Society recommends keeping babies out of the sun between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. If there is no choice and a child must be taken outdoors, the society writes, the most important defense against sun damage is clothing: shirts with sleeves, pants, socks and a wide-brimmed hat. Additionally, all exposed skin should be protected with sunscreen over SPF 30. According to the society's literature, children under one year shouldn't generally use sunscreen. However, if the choice is between him burning in the sun or using it, the lotion is the better alternative. The society suggests buying sunscreen without perfume and testing a small spot on the baby's stomach or back before sloshing it all over his body. You could also use a zinc stick on his nose, cheeks and lips. One should expose babies to the sun as little as possible (the vitamin D they need can be absorbed in two to three minutes, even in the shade) and protect them with parasols or other forms of shade. It is not recommended to take babies to pools or the sea during the morning or afternoon. With older kids, you should make sure they keep their clothes on outside (not an easy feat), and when in water it is recommended that they wear a full-body swimsuit or a shirt over trunks. They must also wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. Ball caps and visors are not effective sun blockers as they do not protect ears and necks. Parents are instructed to put a double layer of sunscreen (SPF 30, preferably water resistant) on their charges, once 15 to 30 minutes before leaving the house and again after the first layer has dried. It should be reapplied every hour or two if the child maintains laboratory conditions and isn't in water, sweating excessively or getting down and dirty (for instance playing in sand). If he is a normal, active child, it should be applied more often. Skin cancer prevention is slowly gaining more awareness in Israel. But on Independence Day I looked around at the beaming parents holding their near-naked babies at Ein Gedi and realized we still have light years to go. This article appeared in a slightly different form as a 'Baby Talk' column in June 2007.