Keeping the risk of skin cancer at bay

For many, summertime means beaches, tans and sun-bathing. However, it can also be a time of increased risk for skin cancer. As people grab their umbrellas and flip flops and head for the beach, many are unaware of the dangers of over-exposure to the sun's UV rays.

Too much time in the sun can put people at a higher risk for skin cancer, which is currently the most common form of cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, there are more than 3.5 million new cases of skin cancer each year, which is more than all other forms of cancer combined. The ACS is expecting to see 1,400 diagnosed cases of Melanoma — the most dangerous kind of skin cancer — in Maryland this year. The incidence of skin cancer is also on a dramatic rise.


Dr. Steven Snyder, director of the Dermatology, Laser Center and Medispa in Owings Mills, said the numbers are now of "epidemic proportions."

"The lifetime risk for a Caucasian to get a malignant melanoma is one out of 50, whereas in 1935 that risk was one out of 1,500 people," he said.


That striking increase, he said, can be attributed to two major changes.

"The number has changed a lot because of the fact that we have a thinning of the ozone layer and there's been a lot more recreational activities with the sun, a lot more burning the people have gotten, so we really have to be concerned about making sure we're protecting people," he said. "It's particularly important for parents to protect babies and small children when they're outside."

Though skin cancer may be the most common form of cancer, it is also the most preventable. For this reason, health professionals encourage people to take necessary precautions — especially during the heat of the summer — to protect themselves against it.

Such protection can come in a variety of forms, from being prudent about how much time is spent outdoors to correctly applying sunscreen.

"The most important tip would be to limit sun exposure, especially during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.," said Roberta Herbst, director of programs at the Center for a Healthy Maryland. "And by limiting sun exposure there are many recommended behaviors, and the first one is to cover up with clothing, [wear] a wide brimmed hat, sunglasses, use an umbrella if you're out at the beach, always have a shade covering available, and of course use a sunscreen."

Keeping an eye on the clock is extremely important, as the sun is more harmful at certain times of the day than at others.

"The sun is four times as strong at high noon as it is at 4 p.m., so being out at noon for one hour is going to be equivalent for being out in the afternoon for several hours, so I advise people to avoid being out in direct sun, laying out in the sun at noon, because the sun is so much stronger directly overhead," Snyder said.

To encourage people to keep skin safety in mind especially during the blistering days of summer, the American Cancer Society is running a campaign called "Slip! Slop! Slap! And Wrap," which encourages four methods of sun protection.

"It's a catch phrase and it reminds people that there are four key ways that people can protect themselves from the sun's rays," said Vivienne Stearns-Elliot, media relations director for the American Cancer Society for the Maryland, Delaware and D.C. region. "The 'slip' is slip on a shirt, so that obviously covers your chest area, slop on sunscreen — and a sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher is recommended — slap on a hat because that protects your face and your neck somewhat, and then wrap on sunglasses and that protects your eyes and the sensitive skin around your eyes."

Though many believe putting on sunscreen once will ensure protection, experts recommend that those in the sun re-apply it regularly to ensure effectiveness. For maximum protection, Snyder said sunscreen should be re-applied every hour, though he said it depends on what activities you're doing and how windy it is.

"I would reapply it depending on the conditions," he said. "If it's real windy, if you're sweating a lot, if you're swimming, re-apply it."

An SPF of 30 is generally recommended, but Snyder said it's important to remember that each person has a different reaction to the sun.

"Maximum protection is determined by your individual response to the sun," he said.

Snyder also said that it's important to recognize when your body has reached its limit. He said that once your skin starts turning red, you should use that as a sign to get out of the sun.

"You're already burning, at that point putting on sunscreen is not going to let you stay out any longer," he said. "You're already starting to get red, you've already started to maximize your protection because you already got burned."

Children are generally more vulnerable to the sun's rays than adults, and over-exposure to the sun as a young person can lead to health problems later in life. For this reason, experts recommend that parents make sure their children are protected and don't spend too much time outdoors during particularly sunny periods.

"They find statistically that people who have gotten most of their sun effects from pre-cancerous changes to increased risk for melanomas, basal cells and squamous cells, a lot of the damaging effects from sun exposure … a lot of those changes occur within the first 18 years," Snyder said. "The skin is more vulnerable at a younger age."

Even after they turn 18, Hearbst said it's important for younger individuals to recognize the risk and severity of skin cancer.

"Young people feel like they're invincible, and feel like if you mention the word cancer, they think 'oh that's something I have to worry about later when I get old,' but the truth is that as I said before, many, many young people are now developing skin cancer, and mostly its melanoma," she said. "One in four people who develop melanoma are under the age of 40, so you don't have to be very old to develop skin cancer. So among young adults age 20 to 39, melanoma is the second most common invasive cancer, second only to breast cancer."

Though skin cancer is a serious threat, experts say early detection is one of the most important ways to minimize overall danger.

"I recommend definitely that they see a dermatologist for a full body scan at least once a year, and that's your best defense for recognizing a skin cancer in its earliest forms when we're able to cure you," Snyder said.

At the end of the day, Stearns-Elliot said it's important to remember that there's no risk-free way to get a tan.

"There's a danger from sun exposure of developing skin cancer," she said. "The sun has harmful UV radiation and there is no such thing as a safe burn or tan."

Reach Staff Writer Elaina Clarke at 410-857-3316 or elaina.clarke@communitytimes.com.

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