Every year, more people are diagnosed with skin cancer than with breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancer combined, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Most people diagnosed with skin cancer are white men over 55. However, that doesn’t exempt others from contracting the disease. Anyone with prolonged sun exposure is susceptible to skin cancer, even those with darker skin. Twenty percent of U.S. residents will incur skin cancer at some stage of their life with those 65 years of older being most susceptible; their rates are around 50 percent.
Individual behavior affects the contraction rate of skin cancer. The myth that residents of color are immune from skin cancer is dangerous and can lead to greater rates of the disease. According to scientists that studied patients of color in Miami Dade County, Fla. in 2006, when Latinos are diagnosed with melanoma, 26 percent of the time it is a late stage diagnosis making treatment much more serious and recovery more difficult. The rate is even higher for late stage diagnosis among African Americans at 52 percent. Only 16 percent of white patients had late stage diagnoses. The investigators conclude that prevention and outreach is “suboptimal” among communities of color.
Late diagnosis can be deadly. Dr. Maritza Pérez, writing for the Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF) says that while Latinos make up a smaller population of overall cases of skin cancer, their late diagnosis leads to higher death rates. At least 21 percent of U.S. skin cancer deaths are attributable to Latino males compared to 14 percent for white males. Latina death rates were 13.3 percent compared to 10 percent for white women. Pérez concludes that poverty levels, lack of medical insurance, and lack of preventative care makes Latinos highly susceptible to deadly skin cancer. From 1992-2008, Latino skin cancer rates increased more than 19 percent. African Americans have the highest rate of late diagnosis and the lowest rates for surviving the disease.
The Environmental Protection Agency reports that melanoma is the fifth most likely form of cancer for Coloradans and is the cause of three-forth of all skin cancer deaths. Approximately 1,260 Coloradans were diagnosed with skin cancer in 2009, the country’s 13th highest incidence. More than 115 Coloradans die from melanoma every year. Pitkin County, which houses the cities of Aspen, Basalt and Woody Creek, has the highest rate of melanoma in the state and is among the highest 1 percent of counties nationwide.
Colorado skin cancer rates are 30 percent higher than the national average. La Voz’ television partner Denver7 estimated that last year, “1,500 would be diagnosed with melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.” In that report, Dr. Neil Box from the University of Colorado Cancer Center was interviewed about increased dangers for skin cancer in Colorado, “Here in Denver, the Mile High City, we have 25 percent more U.V. in the ambient light than compared to the same light level at sea level. At 10,000 feet you’re at 50 percent more U.V. than at sea level. Ultraviolet light or U.V. is one of the main causes of skin cancer.” Box and his team are researching genetic factors that may lead to a higher likelihood of contracting the disease.
The Colorado Melanoma Foundation, founded in 2013, is working to ensure greater awareness and prevention of skin cancer. They report that Coloradans have the greatest UV exposure in the country given our elevation, prevalence of the sun, and a “lack of protective atmosphere”. The outdoor lifestyle of residents further enhances risk. Those enjoying snow sports receive “up to 80 percent additional ultraviolet radiation as it reflects off the snow,” according to their web site.
Through several events, the foundation will raise awareness and promote preventative measures. At the Dragon Boat Festival and the Melanoma Night Walk, staff and volunteers take pictures of attendees using a special UV camera. The camera shows UV damage not visible to the naked eye and areas which require special attention. The photos are sent to participants via email. The organization will hold benefit events to raise funds for their efforts including a polo tournament in Salida and a golf tournament in Edwards. Both will take place in August.
The U.S. Skin Cancer Foundation lists 9 ways to protect your skin:
1) Seek shade, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4pm when the sun is hottest. 60 percent of UV is absorbed between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Nearly 40 percent of Latinos report sunbathing.
2) Avoid sunburn – risk for melanoma doubles if you have had more than 5 sunburns in your lifetime. Over 30 percent of Latinos report being sunburned in the past year.
3) Avoid sun tanning and ultraviolet (UV) tanning booths – people who first use tanning beds before the age of 35 increase their likelihood of contracting skin cancer by 75 percent. White Latinos are 2.5 times more likely than white non-Latinos to have used tanning beds. More than 419,000 cases of skin cancer are linked to tanning beds. At least 12 percent of Latinos between 18-29 report using a tanning bed in the past year.
4) Cover up with a hat and UV blocking sunglasses. Shade can reduce UV exposure by 50 percent or more. Only 25 percent of Latinos report wearing protective clothing in the sun.
5) Use a broad spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher on a daily basis, for prolonged outdoor activity use a water resistant sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher. For those Latinos who do use sunscreen, 22 percent report not knowing the SPF level of the product they used.
6) Apply one ounce of sunscreen to your entire body before going outside. Reapply every two hours. Sounds simple, right? However, 43 percent of Latinos reported “Never” or “Rarely” using sunscreen.
7) Keep newborns out of the sun and apply sunscreen to babies older than 6 months.
8) Examine your skin every month – as with other types of cancer, early detection of skin cancer is key to effective treatment. Only 15 percent of Latinas report doing regular self-skin checks.
9) See your physician every year for a skin examination. 89 percent of Latinas have failed to discuss melanoma with their physician.