Summer is almost here (or if you’re in Texas, summer has been here for a few weeks), meaning that many are looking forward to relaxing outside all day and soaking up the sun. Before summer gets here, many want to make sure they won’t show up by the pool, on the beach, in the park looking pasty and pale. They want to look tan and glowing, laying out to soak up the sun or doing some pre-summer tanning in tanning beds.
Unfortunately, tanning can lead to skin cancer, and specifically melanoma. According to the American Cancer Society, melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, will account for about 68,130 cases of skin cancer in 2010 and will kill about 8,700 people each year.
So you might think twice about whether tan skin is worth the risk.
Melanoma is a cancer that begins in the melanocytes – the cells that produce the skin coloring or pigment known as melanin. Melanin helps protect the deeper layers of the skin from the harmful effects of Ultraviolet Rays(UV). The biggest UV ray threats come from the sun, tanning beds and sunlamps. Too much exposure to UV light damages skin cells and increase the risk of melanoma. Melanoma is also more common in people who live in areas with large amounts of UV radiation from the sun, such as the Southwestern.
Risk factors for skin cancer include:
- Severe, blistering sunburns: People who have had at least one severe, blistering sunburn are at increased risk of skin cancer. Although people who burn easily are more likely to have had sunburns as a child, sunburns during adulthood also increase the risk of skin cancer.
- A lifetime of sun exposure – especially Unprotected and/or excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation
- Tanning – tanning slightly lowers the risk of sunburn, but even people who tan well without sunburning have a higher risk of skin cancer because of more lifetime sun exposure.
- Sunlamps and tanning booths: Artificial sources of UV radiation, such as sunlamps and tanning booths, can cause skin damage and skin cancer. Health care providers strongly encourage people, especially young people, to avoid using sunlamps and tanning booths. The risk of skin cancer is greatly increased by using sunlamps and tanning booths before age 30.
- Personal history: People who have had melanoma have an increased risk of developing other melanomas. Also, people who have had basal cell or squamous cell skin cancer have an increased risk of developing another skin cancer of any type.
- Family history: Melanoma sometimes runs in families. Having two or more close relatives (mother, father, sister, brother, or child) who have had this disease is a risk factor for developing melanoma.
- Fair skin: skin that burns in the sun easily, blue or gray eyes, red or blond hair, or many freckles increases the risk of skin cancer.
Prevention is easy!
- Protect yourself from the sun’s rays reflected by sand, water, snow, ice, and pavement. The sun’s rays can go through light clothing, windshields, windows, and clouds. Seek shade when outside or try to go out early in the morning or late in the evening when the sun rays are not so strong.
- Use sunscreen lotions with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15-30. Apply 30 minutes before going outside, and reapply every two hours or after swimming or sweating. It’s great that a lot of women’s makeup has spf to protect the face.
- Wear long sleeves and long pants. Tightly woven fabrics are best. I know this sounds stupid and like it will make you hotter, but in fact it will keep you cooler if you wear lighter colour clothing.
- Wear a hat with a wide brim all around that shades your face, neck, and ears. Keep in mind that baseball caps and some sun visors protect only parts of your skin.
- Wear sunglasses that absorb UV radiation to protect the skin around your eyes.
- See your doctor if you have a lot of moles or freckles or if you notice your moles look weird (see below).
Luckily, if found early, melanoma can be treated with 91% survival rate after 5-years. But you have to be aware of the signs and symptoms:
- Any change on the skin, especially in the size or color of a mole or other darkly pigmented growth or spot, or a new growth
- Scaliness, oozing, bleeding, or change in the appearance of a bump or nodule
- The spread of pigmentation beyond its border such as dark coloring that spreads past the edge of a mole or mark
- A change in sensation, itchiness, tenderness, or pain
This picture will help you see the difference between regular and melanoma moles – just think ABCD:
A = Asymmetry: Melanoma lesions are typically irregular in shape (asymmetrical); benign (noncancerous) moles are typically round (symmetrical).
B = Border: Melanoma lesions often have irregular borders (i.e., ragged or notched edges); benign moles have smooth, even borders.
C = Colors: Melanoma lesions often contain many shades of brown or black; benign moles are usually a single shade of brown.
D = Diameter: Melanoma lesions are often more than 1/4 inch or six millimeters in diameter (about the size of a pencil eraser); benign moles are usually less than 1/4 inch or six millimeters in diameter.
At the end of the day it’s up to you. Maybe looking tan is important to you. Just remember that besides making your skin age and look gross, it really can kill you. I watched skin cancer kill my grandfather in his late 60’s (far too early). He wasn’t a fair-skinned man, but he spent a lot of time outdoors throughout his life. I’m fair and at great risk for skin cancer. I think fair skin isn’t something to be ashamed of; it’s something to protect.
By the pool, on the beach, in the backyard, picnicking, playing frisbee, on vacation or just out for a long drive with your left arm in the sunshine, have fun but be safe in the sun.
Advice from assistant professor, Susan Y. Chon, MD, in the Department of Dermatology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center on sunscreen: