I’m so sick of all these people making a big deal about cancer. I know that it’s awful, I know that it’s incurable, and I know that I may not have the best attitude towards it – but it just seems like the media takes a real condition and twists it into a “the sky is falling!” scenario. This really bothers me in the context of skin cancer. Is it really as deadly as the media makes it sound? Do we really need to spend less time in the sun, or is it just the “trendy” thing right now? I’d like to dispel a couple of these notions, especially since summer is coming and we all want to get out there and achieve the perfect bronze.
First, let’s talk about skin cancer. There are 3 main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.
Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most common types of skin cancer, but generally are not lethal. They are caused by prolonged exposure to the suns Ultra-Violet rays (UV rays). UV rays emit radiation, which can damage your skin cells. This damage can mess up your DNA, which is responsible for the manufacturing of new skin cells. When the DNA is damaged, your new skin cells aren’t made correctly and start to multiply. This makes up what we know as tumors – the uncontrolled growth of bad cells. For basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, this growth usually doesn’t spread very quickly and can be removed easily. There is not much to worry about when it comes to these types of skin cancer. I mean, you don’t want to have surgery to remove these cancers, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world if you were diagnosed with either of them.
Melanoma, although it accounts for less than 5% of skin cancer cases, is much more dangerous. Melanoma is a cancer that happens in your melanocytes, which are the cells responsible for the color of your skin and hair. This type of skin cancer is associated with periods of intense sun exposure rather than prolonged exposure. This means that if you get sunburnt then your risk of melanoma greatly increases, even if you weren’t in the sun very long. Melanoma is usually manifest in strange dark marks on your skin or unusually shaped moles. If caught early, melanoma is easily treated, but it is definitely more lethal than other types of skin cancer because it can spread to other parts of your body through your blood stream or lymph nodes. When this happens, you’re in deep trouble and usually have to endure harsh treatments like chemotherapy.
Skin cancer is clearly connected to sun exposure, but does that make tanning a bad idea?
Tanned skin is essentially the result of damaged skin cells. When you are out in the sun, your skin is being attacked by UV radiation. When you tan, your skin produces a pigment called melanin. This pigment shows up in your cells to offer protection from painful sunburnt skin. It will usually be manifest in your newer cells, which is why you sometimes get a really bad sunburn before you can tan easily. The sun is basically cooking your skin and giving you a nice toasted look. We like the look, but our skin cells aren’t thrilled with the idea of being fried by UV rays. It is recommended that you limit your direct sunlight intake to 15-20 minutes a day in order to soak up vitamin D but still be protected from skin damage.
Ideally, we wouldn’t want to spend hours and hours soaking in the sun’s radiation. In reality, our culture has placed emphasis on the bronzed look and many people have an “I don’t care, I’m going to tan anyway” attitude. Everyone can make their own choices and tanning won’t necessarily give you skin cancer, but you should still be cautious and use the right protection when you’re going out in the sun.
When tanning, please remember to wear a sunscreen that is SPF 15 or higher. You will still get the color that you want, but your skin will have more protection from the harmful effects of UV rays. It’s also a good idea to tan during the sun’s “down time” before 10:00 AM and after 3:00 PM. If you tan during these hours, then the power of the sun will be less intense which can prevent you from over-cooking.
Is skin cancer a big deal? Not really. If you take the right precautions and you are informed, then you have no reason to fear. Be smart about tanning and keep track of how much time you spend in the sun. Just listen to your body so that you can catch any problems early and skin cancer doesn’t have to be a problem. For more information, please visit www.skincancer.org.