I wish I knew three years ago what I know now. In 2010, I lost my wife to melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, which claims the life of one American every hour. Melanoma is especially cruel in advanced stages because it can quickly spread throughout the body, in some cases affecting vital organs and wreaking havoc on the body. My family and I have seen this firsthand, and I would not wish it upon my worst enemy.
Public health officials have warned of the dangers of overexposure to the sun and UV rays from tanning beds, yet most people don't protect themselves or their loved ones as well as they should.
As a former NFL coach, I admit that sunscreen was not a priority in terms of how the players and coaches prepared to be out in the sun. I also wasn't aware of the risk factors for melanoma until it affected my family. There are many others out there who still don't understand all of the factors that may affect a person's chances of developing melanoma.
For example, having fair skin, blue eyes, light hair and freckles and moles on your body puts you at greater risk. Where you live can also impact your chances of developing melanoma. While you might think that the states with the sunniest or warmest climates are the only hotbeds of melanoma, I learned that states like Vermont and Utah have a higher incidence than you might expect. Why? Likely due to the high altitude and, frankly, because people don't always think about protecting themselves from the sun when they are skiing or otherwise enjoying the outdoors.
With more than 75,000 Americans diagnosed annually with melanoma, there's no question that we can do a better job of educating ourselves about the disease and taking action. When caught early, melanoma is actually a very treatable disease. However, in late stages, it becomes much harder to treat.
In addition to my wife, I've lost former colleagues to this disease, such as NFL coach Jim Johnson. Former Baltimore Ravens coach Cam Cameron had melanoma in his early 20s but he is alive today because he caught it early.
When it comes to melanoma, early detection is key. Regular skin cancer screenings with a dermatologist and checking your own skin on a monthly basis for irregularities may help identify melanoma early. Because I will always be a football coach at heart, I tend to think of melanoma as an opponent that should not be underestimated. Have a game plan in mind: Screen. Protect. Know. Tell.
• Screen: Get routine skin cancer screenings with a dermatologist and conduct regular skin self-exams;
• Protect: yourself and your family from overexposure to UV rays;
• Know: your risk factors, such as family history and number of moles;
• Tell: your friends and family about the importance of protecting themselves against melanoma.
As all the professional football teams this time of year do a tremendous amount of research around draft picks they may select, you should do your homework too when it comes to skin cancer prevention. Pick up that phone and call a doctor to get screened. It could save your life.
Bill Cowher, a football analyst for "The NFL Today," coached the Pittsburgh Steelers for 15 years. For more information, visit www.melanomaexposed.com.