Just as research into concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy has demonstrated how truly fragile our brains are, we also have overwhelming evidence that our skin — especially fair, white and/or freckled skin — is extremely fragile and very susceptible to skin cancer when exposed to too much sun or tanning beds.
Which is not to say that less-pale people and people of color don’t also need to practice skin cancer prevention. They do. Skin cancer is less common in people of color, but it’s often more serious because it’s usually found later, when it’s harder to treat, according to Lisa Chipps, MD, director of dermatologic surgery at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
And in places like Washington and Oregon, where we have more cloudy weather and higher rates of melanoma than the national average, it’s easy for everyone to underestimate their risk of skin cancer. (Washington’s rate is 29 percent higher than average.) Because despite the clouds, you can still get burned. A history of sunburns is one of the risk factors for developing melanoma, the deadliest of skin cancers. It can be treated if discovered early.
Today marks National Melanoma Day, which kicks off National Melanoma Prevention Month, which is needed, because unfortunately skin cancer rates keep climbing. Prevention and early discovery are key to reversing the numbers. The EPA provides the following startling statistics:
In 2008, more than 1 million people were diagnosed with skin cancer, making it the most common of all cancers. That means more people were diagnosed with skin cancer that year than people were diagnosed with breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancer combined. About 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime.
One American dies of melanoma almost every hour.
Melanoma is the second most common form of cancer for adolescents and young adults (15-29 years old.)
For people born in 2005, 1 in 55 will be diagnosed with melanoma — nearly 30 times the rate for people born in 1930.
While it is taking the usual bureaucratic time, the FDA has proposed banning tanning booths for people under 18 years of age, a move Washington state made law in 2014. This is important because studies show that exposure to ultraviolet radiation during indoor tanning damages the DNA in skin cells, leading to premature aging, immune suppression and eye damage, according to the Polyclinic in Seattle. A review of seven studies found a 75 percent increase in the risk of melanoma in those who had been exposed to UV radiation from indoor tanning.
In terms of prevention, the No. 1 thing is stay out of tanning beds, young and old alike. Embrace your paleness. Treat your skin like you would a baby’s.
Other important actions: Wear waterproof, broad-spectrum sunscreen and/or protective clothing when outdoors, whether it’s cloudy or sunny. Reapply it often.
Try to stay out of direct sunlight, or limit your time, during the peak sun hours, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Get to know every inch of your skin (a partner can help) and keep watch out for changes in moles, freckles, birthmarks, bumps and growths.
If you have risk factors for melanoma, it also makes sense to establish a relationship with a dermatologist.
Let’s hope the early summer the Northwest is experiencing this spring will motivate people to protect their precious skin.