By Dena Pepple, R.N. for Lee’s Summit Physicians Group
Do you plan to get a healthy tan this summer? Maybe you will lay out, catch some rays, sunbathe or bask in the sun. Your skin may glow or look sun kissed. You may even call yourself a sun worshiper. These are all positive and pleasing words about tanning, but I promise you, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A HEALTHY TAN!
Tanning became fashionable in the 1920s and rose to popular heights in the 1960s and 1970s. Its popularity hasn’t slowed down since, and we now have tanning salons/beds that help us get that tan faster. The 60s-70s were my childhood and teenage years. I grew up getting that “healthy” tan, playing outside or laying out.
The Leading Cause of Skin Cancer
Unfortunately, that “healthy” tan that we sought, and still seek, has been found to be the leading cause of skin cancer. As a matter of fact, more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the USA than all other cancers combined. The majority of these skin cancers (up to 90%) are associated with exposure to UV radiation from the sun and tanning beds. So, today, I would like to shed some light (get it?!) on tanning and skin cancer.
Skin cancer is the abnormal growth of skin cells. It most often occurs on exposed skin, but can occur on any part of the body, including soles of feet, palms of hands and inside the mouth. There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell skin cancer, and melanoma. Melanoma is the most serious, but thankfully also the rarest of the three types. While these skin cancers are in different layers of the skin and have other variations; the causes, diagnosis, treatment and prevention are similar.
Let me give you some interesting and scary facts about skin cancer.
- One in five people will develop skin cancer by the age of 70.
- Five or more sunburns doubles your risk of melanoma.
- The annual cost of treating skin cancer in the USA is $8.1 billion dollars per year.
- More people develop skin cancer from tanning beds, than develop lung cancer from smoking.
- From 1994 to 2014, the incidence of skin cancer rose 77%.
- Sand, snow, concrete, and water can reflect up to 85% of sunlight, which intensifies exposure.
- Over five million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the USA each year.
- Skin cancer can spread to other organs if not caught early.
- Brazil and Australia have totally banned indoor tanning, and many other countries have banned it for people under the age of 18.
Skin Cancer Causes
Ultraviolet exposure from the sun and tanning beds is the number one risk factor associated with skin cancer. Other risk factors include fair skin, history of sunburns, living in sunny or high altitude areas, skin moles, relatives with skin cancer, previous skin cancers, and exposure to radiation.
Presentation/Diagnosis of Skin Cancer
Skin cancer has many different images. Some are very noticeable, other changes may be tiny.
The more common skin changes/symptoms are as listed:
- Scaly, crusty patch of skin
- Firm red nodule
- Recurrent bleeding, scabbing sore
- Pearly, waxy bumps
- Flat, scar like lesion
- Multicolored spot
- Mole changes in color, size, shape or border
- Itchy, painful, or fast growing lesion
- Dark skin spots in areas not exposed to the sun
The only way to know for sure if you do or don’t have skin cancer is to be assessed by your doctor or dermatologist. ALL SKIN CHANGES ARE SUSPECT! Early detection leads to the best outcomes, so if you see a change, or have a suspicion, SEE YOUR DOCTOR!
Skin Cancer Treatment
Treatment for skin cancer depends on the individual diagnosis, including but not limited to the type of cancer, where it is on the body, is it contained or has it spread.
Treatment can include:
- Surgical removal-in office procedure to more complex hospital.
- Cryosurgery-freezing the lesion with liquid nitrogen.
- Immunotherapy-creams or intravenous therapy that stimulate our own system to fight cancer.
- Chemotherapy-drugs that destroy the cancer cells.
- Radiation-radioactive waves that destroy the cancer cells.
Prevention of Skin Cancer
The good news is that skin cancer is preventable. According to the Prevent Cancer Foundation, “skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis” and “it is the most preventable cancer.” They go on to say that “protecting your skin during your first 18 years can reduce your risk of some types of skin cancer by 78%.” This is huge!
Here is what you can do to reduce your risk and that of your children:
- Avoid tanning.
- Use SPF 30 sunscreen year round and use it right-follow the directions correctly (DO NOT USE OUTDATED SUNSCREEN).
- Avoid the sun between 10am and 4pm when the sun’s rays are strongest.
- Wear protective clothing, especially children (hats, long sleeves, etc.)
- Be aware of sun-sensitizing medicines you may be taking.
- Check your skin (and your children’s) regularly for suspicious changes.
- Early detection, if any changes-DON’T WAIT, see your doctor.
I do see some of the generations younger than me doing this, especially with their children. There are more swim shirts/hats in use, and it seems most are using sunscreen at the pool and outside when playing. There is hope that the facts, statistics, and information in this article will improve into the next decade and generation. There’s still much work to do to guide us from that healthy tan view.
I need to work on it myself as well. I’ve had a lot of “healthy” tans in my lifetime, and I’m still tempted to go for a tan look vs. my pasty skin. However, those tans took me to the dermatologist a few months ago for some spots on my face. I was hoping they were normal age spots, but skin cancer was on my mind. Luckily, the doctor said they weren’t cancerous, but “wisdom spots.” I told him, I don’t care what he called them as long as he didn’t call them cancer! As I look back, wisdom spots may not have been the best description as my years in the sun weren’t wise.
My husband wasn’t so lucky.
When I walked into the waiting room looking for him, he sat there reading a magazine with a big bandage on his arm. He, along with many other bandaged patients in the room, was waiting to find out if his procedure had gotten all of the cancer, or if there was more skin cancer to remove. My husband had squamous cell cancer. Thankfully, it was contained and removed. And 18 stitches later, he was cancer free.
Being a child of the 60s-70s, and a football coach his entire adulthood put him in the sun almost daily. We’re now a part of those skin cancer statistics. We will do better in the future, protect our grandchildren from the sun, and have seen the light (get it?!)