Mitchell L. Gaynor M.D.

Your Genetic Destiny

Skin Cancer Prevention

Have fun in the sun without getting sunburned.

Posted May 22, 2015

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In my new book, The Gene Therapy Plan, you’ll find plenty of tips on cancer prevention through nutrition at the level of your DNA. But there are some lifestyle tips you can implement that will help guard against harmful UV light exposure. And sun protection is crucial because as the weather heats up, more and more people will be partaking in outdoor activities like surfing, swimming, bike riding, and walking. And while these are all fun activities (and great workouts too), you should be protecting your skin as well from harmful ultraviolet (UV) light.

Recently, Australian actor Hugh Jackman has been in the news. Known for playing the indestructible character Wolverine from the Marvel Comic X-Men, Jackman was not being interviewed about his work as a Hollywood star. Rather, he was discussing something personal — his skin cancer scare. Admitting that he “never wore sunscreen growing up,” many others with similar practices will inevitably find out that they’ve developed a form of cancer.

Cancer types

Skin cancer is the leading cause of all forms of cancer in the United States. There are various forms of skin cancer: actinic keratosis (AK), basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma. And the American Cancer Society says that approximately 3.5 million Americans will receive a diagnosis of basal and squamous cell skin cancers; plus, this year, 73,870 people will develop melanoma, a more dangerous form of skin cancer.1 When it comes to skin cancer, however, early diagnosis is key. Although BCC and SCC aren’t deadly, if undetected and untreated, they can spread, cause infection and disfigurement. While there are three forms of skin cancer, there is a precancerous type called actinic keratosis that can develop in squamous cell carcinoma.

Basal cell cancer composes over 90 percent of all skin cancers. Named for the basal cells found in the deepest layer of the epidermis, these skin cancer cells grow slowly on sun-exposed areas of skin like the face and neck. They rarely spread but can if left untreated. Among those who have been diagnosed with BCC, this cancer tends to recur within five years. In fact, this was the same type of cancer Hugh Jackman was diagnosed with. And he has had four skin cancers removed within the span of 18 months.

Squamous cell cancers, although found in the topmost layer of the epidermis, grow into deeper skin layers and can also spread to other tissue if left untreated, although this is quite uncommon.

And then there’s melanoma — a dangerous and lethal kind of skin cancer that develops in pigment-producing skin cells (melanocytes). While melanomas often show up in places like the chest, back, arms, and legs, they can also show up in areas you may not think of like under your nail bed or soles of your feet. Although these are less common yet more aggressive than basal and squamous cell cancers, if found early, it’s cure rate is actually quite high (approximately 98%).

The S’s of Sun Safety

So what can you do to protect you and your family from skin cancer? There’s plenty that you could be doing besides putting on sunscreen, which is one of many things you can do to protect your skin.

Slather on the Sunscreen: Protect your skin from the damaging effects of the sun’s rays by slopping on sunscreen that has UVA and UVB (broad spectrum) protection and has an SPF of 30 or higher. Also, protect the delicate, thin skin of your lips with an SPF lip balm. Be certain to reapply sunscreen every 2 hours. And if your workout occurs outdoors or if you’ve been swimming, be sure to slather on your sunscreen again.

Slide on Your Sunglasses: Wear sunglasses that have UVA and UVB protection. This will help to protect your eyes and the sensitive skin surrounding it.

Seek Out the Shade: The sunlight’s harmful rays are the most powerful during the middle of the day — 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Limit your time spent in direct sunlight, especially during these times. So if you’re meeting a friend for lunch, eat inside rather than curbside. And while trees alone don’t offer absolute protection from UV light, sitting under a tree when the sun is shining is better than not sitting under one at all.

Show off Your Summer Style: Wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your head and face from UV light. For baseball and basketball fans, go ahead and show off your favorite team with a sports cap, just be sure to apply sunscreen to your face, ears, and neck. Also, wear comfortable clothing that covers up your skin and is made of fabric that is tightly woven — if you can see through the material, then the skin underneath your clothing is getting exposed to UV light. That’s why it’s essential to protect your entire body, not just the areas that aren’t covered up by clothing.

Steer Clear of Tanning Beds: Some folks may escape to tanning beds in an effort to achieve that Caribbean vacation glow in a pinch. But tanning beds account for more than 419,000 skin cancer cases every year in this country.2 Last month, a nurse who stated that she owned a personal tanning bed and used it several times a week shared an image of her face on social media after getting skin cancer treatment. She captioned the photo: “If anyone needs a little motivation to not lay in the tanning bed and sun here ya go! This is what skin cancer treatment can look like.”

Be Proactive, Not Reactive

The sun’s effect isn’t only negative: The sun is a wonderful mood booster and it helps our body make vitamin D. This nutrient carries out several essential functions in the body like maintaining bone health, bolstering immunity. So speak with your doctor about getting your levels checked and what you can do to get your vitamin D levels in a good range.

To balance things out, so that the time you spend in the sun is less about fretting and more about living, be proactive. Don’t wait until someone points out a skin lesion or find out that someone you love has skin cancer before you act. Take the time to check your skin. For hard to see areas of your skin like your back or scalp, use a mirror or ask a loved one to look at those areas. Talk with your doctor about having a skin exam.

Remember: Skin protection is a year-round, lifelong practice because the sun’s UV light aren’t limited to hot, summer days. UV light can also reflect off of snow in the winter and pierce through clouds when the skies are gray.

References:

1. American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2015.http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@editorial/documents/document/a.... Accessed May 14, 2015.

2. Wehner M, Chren M-M, Nameth D, et al. International prevalence of indoor tanning: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Dermatol 2014; 150(4):390-400. Doi: 10.1001/jamadermatol.2013.6896.