Understanding Cancer Risk Part 5: Sun Safety

The New Year is a great time to make healthy changes – start the year off with a new attitude, pledge to get more activity, eat better or do something to better yourself. Since we spend all day talking about cancer, we decided to kick off the new year with the goal of helping you learn about cancer risk and what you can do to reduce your risk. This blog series will focus on some common risk factors and attempt to bust some myths and help you see ways to improve your health and reduce your cancer risk. In part 5 we will look at the sun and how UV exposure contributes to cancer risk.

As I sit down to write this blog, the temperature outside is barely over zero. I guess I am hoping talking about the sun will make me feel warmer!

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer diagnosed in the US (and many other countries too) with more than 5 million new diagnoses a year! There are 3 main types of skin cancer – basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. The main cause of all three is ultraviolet (UV) light exposure. UV light is made up of UVA and UVB rays and both types contribute to the development of skin cancer.

One way we get UV exposure is through the sun, either in short bursts like a day at the beach, which may lead to sunburns, or through chronic exposure for people who spend lots of time in the sun (for example,roofers, golfers and mail carriers). We can also get UV exposure through artificial sources – tanning beds, UV used to treat some skin conditions (phototherapy), black lights and lights used for disinfecting. It doesn’t matter what the source is, it can all contribute to skin damage and skin cancer.

One common myth is that people with brown or black skin are safe from UV damage. While skin cancer in people with dark skin is not as common, it does occur. In fact, Reggae musician Bob Marley died from complications of melanoma. One thing to note is that in darker skinned people skin cancer may occur in different locations than their pale skin counterparts. These can include the bottom of the feet, under finger or toenails, on the skin of the genitals or buttocks. This can lead to these cancers going undiagnosed.

There are a few ways to reduce your skin cancer risk, including:

  • Know your own skin – if something looks new or different, talk to your healthcare provider. An annual skin exam by your provider is great, but you know your skin best. Speak up if you see something!
  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen (protects against UVA & UVB rays) every day, including in the winter.
  • Avoid peak sun times (10am-4pm), when the rays are strongest.
  • Wear protective clothing such as hats,sunglasses and long-sleeved shirts.
  • Do not use tanning beds or sunlamps.

We know more about the dangers of UV than ever before. I can remember going on vacation as a kid and packing Solarcaine for the inevitable sunburn. I think we will see skin cancer rates continue to climb before they plateau, as many people who had extensive sun exposure as kids and young adults age and develop skin cancers. But, with a younger, more informed generation coming up behind me, I hope that trend turns around soon.

Want to learn more about your risk factors and reducing your cancer risk? Take the Reduce My Risk survey!

Carolyn Vachani is an oncology advanced practice nurse and the Managing Editor at OncoLink. She has worked in many areas of oncology including BMT, clinical research, radiation therapy and staff development. She serves as the project leader in the development and maintenance of the OncoLife Survivorship Care Plan and has a strong interest in oncology survivorship care. She enjoys discussing just about any cancer topic,as well as gardening, cooking and, of course, her sons.

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