The dark side of the sun

Cliff Vancura/Durango Herald

By Dale Rodebaugh Herald staff writer

May – national skin cancer awareness month – is on its last legs, but the tanning season and the accompanying cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation from the sun is only beginning.

A sunburn isn’t an uncomfortable, short-lived, solo incident. Ultraviolet radiation is cumulative, meaning that every sunburn since childhood, every day at the beach, every hour of gardening or attending a ballgame outdoors adds to the impact on the body.

Coloradans can face greater peril than residents of other states, said Dr. Heather Wickless at Durango Dermatology.

The effect of ultraviolet radiation increases 10 percent for each 1,000 feet gain in elevation above sea level, Wickless said.

“So we’re getting 60 to 70 percent more UV radiation than they do in Miami Beach,” Wickless said.

But preventive measures can slow the accumulation of UV radiation, and early detection of symptoms can prevent serious consequences, including disfiguring surgery and death.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer, accounting for about half the cases in the United States, and it strikes in increasing degrees of seriousness.

Actinic keratosis is an early stage characterized by scaly patches of skin which, if left untreated, can lead to basal-cell carcinoma and squamous-cell carcinoma, which account for 3.5 million diagnoses annually in the United States.

Melanoma is the least common skin cancer, but it’s the deadliest because it can metastasize. About 76,600 people in the country will get diagnoses of melanoma this year. In Colorado, 1,310 new cases of melanoma will appear, and an estimated 190 people will die from melanoma.

People at highest risk for melanoma have a family history of cancer or a history of sunburns. Fair-skinned people with blue eyes and people who work outside also are at greater risk.

Dr. Chris Urbina, a family physician by training and now the chief medical officer for Colorado, said melanoma is a serious challenge.

“Basal-cell and squamous-cell carcinoma are preventable with early detection,” Urbina said. “But melanoma is a tough one. Once it’s diagnosed, it can require disfiguring surgery.”

Everyone likes that tanned look, but it’s risky, Urbina said. Sun should be avoided or its effects mitigated with preventive measures, he said.

Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, doesn’t like the trend he’s seeing.

“If current trends continue, one in five Americans will get skin cancer, and many of those skin cancers could be prevented by reducing UV exposure from the sun and indoor tanning devices,” Frieden said recently in a statement. “Of particular concern is the increase in rates of melanoma. In the United States, melanoma is one of the most common cancers among people ages 15 to 29 years.”

Steve Brown, district executive director of the Great West Division of the American Cancer Society, in Colorado Springs, follows the agency’s recommendations for protection against UV radiation to the letter.

“I’m a cancer survivor,” Brown said. “Six years ago, I had radiation for metastasized cancer found at the base of my tongue. Now, I take all the precautions possible.”

A set of common-sense practices can prevent many cases of cancer, experts say. Among them:

Wear clothing that covers the arms and legs and a hat that protects the face, head, nose, ears and neck.

Use an effective sunscreen. Dermatologists say a lotion or cream should have a sun-protection factor, or SPF, of at least 30. SPF 15 sunscreens filter out about 93 percent of rays, and an SPF 50 sunscreen will get 98 percent.

Avoid direct sun if possible between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Seek shade whenever possible.

Wear sunglasses that protect the skin around the eyes and the eyes themselves.

Avoid tanning salons and sunlamps.

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