Here’s an interesting fact that will most likely not stir a bit of excitement: the state of Connecticut has a population of – give or take – 3.5 million people. Big deal, you say. But how about this? What if someone told you that everyone in Connecticut would develop skin cancer sometime in the next twelve months? Got your attention now?
That is certainly not going to happen. But that many people – 3.5 million – will be diagnosed with a form of skin cancer across the United States over the next calendar year. Most will survive, but not all. And Colorado will have its share. Nearly 1,300 state residents will be diagnosed this year. On average, about 120 will die.
What is skin cancer? For starters, it’s the most common form of cancer in the U.S., outpacing breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers combined. According to the Environmental Protection Agency one in three people born in 2006 will be a skin cancer victim in their lifetime, a rate 30 times faster than for people born in the mid-20th century.
While anyone can get skin cancer, the reality is that most of its victims will be white. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control says the highest skin cancer rates are in the ten states with the whitest populations. But that news should not inspire complacency. Latinos and African-Americans as well as people with more pigment in their skin – darker complexioned people – remain potential targets.
Skin cancer starts on areas of the skin most exposed to the sun. There are essentially three types. Basal cell carcinoma is the least dangerous form of skin cancer. It almost never spreads beyond where it is first discovered. Squamous cell carcinoma, the second most serious form, is first noticed on areas of the body that have been exposed to sunlight for years, usually the head, neck and hands. For women, it is also seen on the lower legs. It can also appear on the lips, inside the mouth and, even the genitals.
Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. If detected early, the outcome is often successful. If it goes undiscovered or ignored it can spread to other body parts and is often fatal.
“We see it (skin cancer) with anyone who works outdoors – postal workers, cops, farm workers,” says Dr. Renee D’Ambrosia, a dermatologist with Kaiser Permanent. The genesis of skin cancer, she says, is the sun and, more specifically, the sun’s ultra violet rays. There are three types of UV rays:
UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin. They cause skin wrinkling, premature aging and can cause skin cancer. The ‘A’ in UVA stands for aging.
UVB rays are stronger and are responsible for sunburn, premature aging and skin cancer. These rays are stronger in summer months, especially between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. The ‘B’ stands for burning.
UVC is the strongest and most dangerous but is stopped by the earth’s atmosphere.
While there is no escaping the sun – especially in a state like Colorado with 300 annual days of sunshine – there is a way to minimize its potential for damage, or worse. For less than ten dollars you can buy an insurance policy doctors say actually works. It’s called sunblock. It comes in lotion or spray.
“Just use it,” says D’Ambrosia. “It should be at least an ounce for your whole body.” An ounce is about the volume contained in a shot glass. D’Ambrosia recommends using a product with an SPF factor of at least thirty but going higher is probably wiser.
Using a sunblock, no matter its protection factor, does not automatically protect. “It takes about twenty minutes” from the time it’s applied, says D’Ambrosia. She also adds that because an infant’s skin is so sensitive, be especially careful with their sun exposure. If you don’t have sunblock use a diaper crème. It will work just as well because it contains zinc, the precursor preventative for sunblock.
Additionally, dermatologists say you should take a good look at your body at least once a month and pay special attention to moles – the darker spots on your skin. Incidentally, don’t overlook so-called ‘beauty marks.’ Despite their description, they’re still moles. For parts of your body that you can’t see fully, ask a friend or partner. Parents, say doctors, should also examine their children on a regular basis. And, for infants, be especially vigilant.
Pay special attention to the borders on moles, their color and shape. If a mole has changed shape or grown, it needs to be looked at. “Uniform brown is good,” says D’Ambrosia. “If you see red, white or blue in a mole, those are concerning colors.” Also, a mole larger than a pencil eraser should be checked.
Being responsible about your skin does not mean avoiding the sun altogether. But any sunburn can be dangerous, especially for children. And, for Caucasians or lighter-complexioned Latinos it’s especially important to be cautious about sunburns.
Sunburns cannot only be painful. They can carry long-term threat. For fair-skinned women, five serious sunburns before age 20 increase the risk of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, by 80 percent, says CDC.
Normal exposure to the sun is unavoidable. People, after all, have to live their lives. Being outside, especially in warmer months, is going to have some effect on skin color. But, doctors say, no one should ever make the effort to get darker.
It may have an aesthetic appeal, but it is simply bad for your health. “Tanning is the skin’s reaction to the sun,” says Denver dermatologist Dr. Robert Delavelle. Tanning, he says, should be minimized. Tanning beds, simply avoided.
Last year House Bill 1054, which would have prohibited minors under 18 from tanning salons without a doctor’s prescription, died in a Colorado Senate committee. “We came close,” says Delavelle who works closely with the American Cancer Society. The state’s tanning industry had a lot to do with the bill’s death.
Unlike doctors, including D’Ambrosia and Delavelle who are adamant that tanning is damaging, the industry says that it’s actually healthy and can protect against sunburn. The industry promotes the aesthetics of its product and is doing its best to attract new business. It’s providing incentives to new or repeat customers, including free lotions to accelerate or accentuate tans, two-for-one visit coupons and using social media to offer tanning specials.
Tanning beds or sun lamps emit UVA rays, an average of 93-99 percent radiation that the industry says increases the benefits of a tan. A Vanderbilt University study, however, calculated this exposure as dangerous, “three times the UVA radiation given off by the sun.”
But, like so many others who know the risk of too much sun, Sophia Eva, owner of Denver’s Unique Hair Salon, still plans on hitting the tanning booth before the warm weather is here to stay.
“I do it so I don’t burn when I’m out in the sun,” says Eva who will hit the tanning salon “once or twice” this season. “I don’t think I’ll get skin cancer because I’m not out in the sun that much. But this allows me to look like I’ve been in the sun.”
The sun is unavoidable and for the next six or seven months, it will be burning its brightest. That also means, we are all potentially running a daily risk of too much exposure to it. To educate yourself on its dangers, the American Cancer Society offers information at its website (www.cancer.org) or call at 800-227-2345.