Topics in Medicine: Melanoma and Sun Exposure

by Lauren Poindexter, Kaplan Elite MCAT Instructor

Summer is here and I, for one, am ready for the beach! Just let me grab my towel, sunglasses, and “broad-spectrum” 30+ SPF sunscreen!

Summertime is a favorite season of millions of people across the world: with the bright sunshine and warmer temperatures come longer days, more hours spent outdoors playing and working, and leisurely holidays with family and friends. Along with figuring out how to evade blood-sucking mosquitos, the messy task of putting on sunscreen can be a real pain. Thankfully, it’s a small nuisance compared to receiving a diagnosis of the dreaded “C word:” cancer.

Skin cancer, and melanoma specifically, are hot topics in today’s society and among young people in general. It seems that members of the younger generation are attracted to the very behaviors that raise one’s risk of skin cancer, as their understanding of the disease is somewhat “shady”. Let’s take a look at the basics of skin cancer and related topics such as sunscreen use and lifetime skin care.

The most common cancer in the United States is skin cancer (1 in every 5 Americans will struggle with this diagnosis) and of the many types, melanoma is the most deadly. Melanoma is the uncontrolled cell growth of melanin-producing cells (melanocytes) and can be found on the body anywhere melanocytes exist, even on the bottom of your feet! Other, more common, types of skin cancer are squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma. The risks of contracting skin cancer, in general, can be divided into external (outside the body, controllable) and internal (within the body, uncontrollable).

Internal risk factors include genetics (family history, complexion, etc), age (risk increases as you get older), and the oft touted number of moles on your body (more than 50 is the magic number). External risks naturally include one’s exposure to ultraviolet radiation (from the sun, tanning beds, etc.) and the related history of one or more severe, blistering sunburns. Because our best protections against skin cancer are knowledge and vigilance, it’s important to know the trends associated with this affliction:

·Rates of melanoma diagnosis have risen over a 30-year period.

·Young, while females have the fastest growing rate of melanoma diagnoses.

·Stage I melanoma has a 95% survival rate in the first 5 years.

·Thinning ozone layer in the atmosphere allows more UV rays through, increasing sunburn risk.

·The FDA has released new guidelines for sunscreen manufacturers that should help consumers make more qualified decisions about coverage and sun safety.

Maintaining healthy skin is an active habit that should start at a young age. Beginning at the age of 20 – or earlier for those at greater risk – individuals are encouraged by the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) to get skin-health check-ups. Primary care physicians or dermatologists can keep a longitudinal history of your moles, spots, freckles, and bumps to check for changes over time and may remove and/or biopsy questionable or concerning lesions. Many young people may find that they have a closer and longer-lasting relationship with their dermatologist than any other medical professional, so find a derm specialist that you trust and like!

In addition to regular check-ups for skin health, liberal use of “broad-spectrum” sunscreen rated SPF 30+ is recommended anytime you are outdoors, according to the AAD. Broad-spectrum is a term bandied about without much understanding as to its meaning; it means that both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays are blocked. Interestingly, UVB rays can wreck the most havoc with your DNA, but fewer sunscreens cover these rays than UVA. We want to protect our skin from UVB rays because their penetration of skin cells can directly damage/mutate DNA that must heal over a very long period of time (years, in fact). It’s encouraged to apply 2-ounces of sunscreen with every application to our entire body- that’s a whole shot glass worth – and throw away expired bottles of sunscreen from last summer.

Sometimes, taking the extra time to pack the right sunscreen and make an appointment with your dermatologist feels like an inconvenience, but it’s a lot more “convenient” in the long run to take great care of your skin, lower your cancer risk, and help educate your friends with the cool info above! For more “skin-spiration” and educational info, check out the following web links:

References:

Skin Cancer Foundation website

Scientific American “Full Exposure: How Will the FDA’s Sunscreen Regulations Help Prevent Skin Cancer?”

ibid. “Skin Cancer Stats-and-Facts”

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