May 18, 2015 12:00 PM

A WIFE’S REQUEST

Jackman’s wife, Deborra-Lee Furness, urged him to get his skin checked.

He plays the indestructible superhero Wolverine in the X-Men series, but when he’s off duty, it’s an everyday foe that requires Hugh Jackman‘s constant vigilance. “I’ve had four skin cancers in 18 months,” the actor tells PEOPLE’s Elizabeth McNeil. Growing up in Australia, he loved playing in the sun and sand but admits, “I never wore sunscreen, so I was a prime candidate.” Now he wants others to learn from his mistakes. Jackman, 46, is speaking out about his skin cancer to raise awareness about how sun exposure can lead to serious complications. The dad of two (he and his wife, Deborra-Lee Furness, are the parents of Oscar, 14, and Ava, 9) will be seen next as Blackbeard in Pan this October and has launched Pure Sun Defense, a line of sunscreen for kids. “I was one of the guys who thought, ‘It won’t happen to me,’ ” he says. “If my voice can convince one person to get a checkup, then sharing my story has made a difference.”

How did you discover you had skin cancer?

When I was filming X Men: Days of Future Past [in 2013], my makeup artist noticed a little spot of blood on my nose and told me to get it checked. I thought it was from a fight sequence. For 17 years I’ve been playing Wolverine, and I’ve had more scrapes, cuts … I’m very clumsy with those claws. That’s when my wife said, “Get it checked, get it checked,” until I did. And my doctor said, “I’m going to do a biopsy; I think you’ve got skin cancer.” Skin cancer surgeon Dr. Michael Albom treated Jackman for basal cell carcinoma, the most common skin cancer, using Moh’s surgery, a process that involves shaving off the cancerous area and examining the cells until no cancer remains.

How did it feel to hear you had cancer?

I was trying to keep calm, but it wasn’t until Dr. Albom explained to me that it is the type of skin cancer you want to have if you’re going to have it that I felt a lot better.

Did you get cancer again?

Yes. The second time, when I went for my next checkup, the dermatologist took a biopsy of something that looked like a freckle. It was cancerous. The third cancer, I noticed I had a bit of blood [on my nose] one morning. I was sure I had scratched myself in my sleep because I had my checkup the week before and it was all clear. It’s 6 o’clock in the morning and I’m taking a selfie of my nose to send to the dermatologist. In that one week it had grown, and it was probably the biggest one I had.

A FAIR FRIEND

“She has the most beautiful skin,” says Jackman of his friend Nicole Kidman (at the 2008 premiere of their movie Australia). “She didn’t get any sun damage.”

POST-SURGERY SELFIE

“If you catch skin cancer early, it’s almost always treatable and curable,” says Jackman’s surgeon Dr. Albom. Below: Jackman co-created the Pure Sun Defense line.

Did you wear sunscreen as a kid?

No. I spent my childhood outside on a beach in Australia, where we have a very thin layer of ozone. I played cricket outside and I’d forget my cap. My nose would get burned every weekend.

How do you monitor your skin now?

I go every three months for checkups. It’s the new normal for me—my doctor says I’ll likely have more, and if that’s your cross to bear in life, you should be so lucky. No one will die from it if you get checkups. In almost every case it’s treatable.

How has this changed you?

I used to think if I didn’t come back with a little bit of color, it’s not a real holiday. I know the reality now: It’s stupid. If you get color, you are going to damage your skin on some level. In the old days, sometimes they’d ask me to get tan for a role, but now I spray- tan if I need it.

As a former Sexiest Man Alive, any tips on making sunscreen, well, sexy?

I don’t think I can comment from the platform of Sexiest Man Alive—that was years ago. [Laughs] We joke about it, but for some kids, they might think it’s cool: “If Wolverine is wearing sunscreen, then I’ll wear it.” Fine, if that’s what works. With my kids it’s like herding cats. I understand when all the other kids are in the water, they want to be in too, but now it’s a habit: Wear sunscreen—broad-spectrum and water-resistant—and reapply.

Why have you been so public on social media about your skin cancer?

It’s not as scary as I first thought, as long as you take care of it. There are a lot of things that happen in life that are hard to avoid, but skin cancer is something you can avoid if you protect yourself. I’m heartened to see the idea that to be sexy and beautiful you have to be tan is gone. People like Nicole Kidman have done a great job. She was made fun of when she was a kid in Australia because she stayed in the shade. No one is making fun of her now.

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