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Reduce Your Risk of Skin Cancer

Photo Credit: Mass General Cancer Center

One of the rituals of summer is sunbathing. You head to the beach or pool with a good book and let yourself bake … bake under the UV rays. You know it’s not good for you, but it’s a small price to pay for a “healthy” glow, right? Well, you might need a reminder about just how damaging that can be.

One person dies every hour from melanoma, the least common but deadliest form of skin cancer. Every year, there are more new cases of skin cancer than those of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer combined. Is that enough to deter you from tanning? If not, how about this: nearly 50 percent of Americans who live to age 65 will be diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma at least once.

Skin cancer risk doesn’t only come from purposely trying to get some rays. Just being outside and unprotected can up your chances when walking your dog, sticking your arm out the window of the car as you drive, watching a Little League game, having a drink in an outdoor café, etc. It’s a little like being a non-smoker and getting lung cancer from residual smoke. The possibility is always there, but you can lessen your risk.

The best way is to not tan and stay away from the sun. That’s probably unrealistic, but you can cut your chances of developing skin cancer by 40-50 percent if you take precautions:

  • Avoid sunbeds at all cost. They can increase your risk of skin cancer by a whopping 75 percent.
  • Apply a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or greater every day – not just when you’re planning to go to the beach.
  • Stay out for no more than two to three hours.
  • Always reapply sunscreen after swimming.
  • Take a break from the sun and look for a shady spot. It limits your sunburn risk, prolongs the tan and reduces UV intensity.
  • Boost your skin’s natural defense with a beta carotene supplement.
  • Eat more foods with lycopene (an antioxidant found in tomatoes and orange fruits and vegetables), your skin’s own SPF.
  • Fake it with a spray tan or a self-tanning cream, but still remember to use sunscreen!

Following these tips is no guarantee that you will avoid skin damage due to sun exposure, but they still help you tan more safely. But what do you do if you think you’ve been doing it wrong for too long, and maybe that freckle or mole is something more serious? If you’re not sure, get it checked out. Even melanoma can be completely eradicated if it’s caught soon enough.

Checking for suspicious spots and moles is as easy as ABC … DE. Most brown spots and moles are benign, but if you pay attention to these five warning signs you could detect a potential problem early.

  • Asymmetry – A benign mole has two equal sides, but one whose two halves don’t match should be checked out.
  • Border – Is it smooth and even around the edges, or is it jagged, notched or scalloped? That’s one you should worry about.
  • Color – Most non-cancerous moles are one color. If your mole displays a mix of shades or colors, it could spell trouble.
  • Diameter – Melanomas are generally bigger than the eraser on a pencil, although they could first appear smaller.
  • Evolving – A regular benign mole doesn’t change over time. If its appearance or size begins to change, or if it bleeds or crusts, you need to see a dermatologist.

You can take some comfort in knowing that doctors and researchers continue to study the effects of UV rays on skin, and they’re making great strides in cancer research every day.

What if you could get a tan without the sun – and without the help of spray tans or self-tanning creams?

Researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Dana Farber Cancer Institute have recently published results of a study in which they discovered a way to increase skin pigmentation (“tanning”) without the damaging effects of UV radiation. David E. Fisher, MD, PhD, chief of the Department of Dermatology at Mass General, led the research, a follow-up to a 2006 study that identified the molecular pathways underlying the tanning response. “It’s possible [the molecular pigmentation pathways] may lead to new ways of protecting against UV-induced skin damage and cancer formation,” he says.

Fisher and his team are developing a topical cream (still in the safety-testing stages) that fools the skin into producing the brown pigmentation – melanin – by thinking it is sunlight. Melanin is a natural sunblock that protects the skin from UV rays. So, in addition to protecting skin against UV radiation, it also creates a tanned skin.

It’s far too early to tell if the Mass General research will result in a safe alternative for tanning. For now, the best way to protect yourself is with consistent use of sunscreen and staying on top of changes in your skin.