Summer is here and the risk of sunburn is high – so is the risk of skin cancer. Despite ongoing efforts and informational campaigns to inform the public about the risks of UV exposure and skin cancer, cases of melanoma (the deadliest skin cancer), are on the rise. According to the American Cancer Society, cases of melanoma in the United States have been on the rise for the last 30 years. More distressing than that, melanoma is the number one new cancer diagnosed in young adults, a statistic attributed to the use of tanning beds by this age group.
How UV Rays Promote Skin Cancer
Skin cancer is often referred to as ‘the most preventable cancer’. That’s because the amount of UV exposure and risk we take is totally in our control. Here are some factors you should know:
- UV rays can penetrate and alter the structure of skin cells, causing skin cancer and premature aging.
- UVA rays are the most plentiful source of solar radiation and can penetrate beyond the surface layers of the skin.
- UVB rays are less abundant, and penetrate less deeply into the skin, but they are the primary cause of sunburn on the surface of the skin.
- UVA and UVB together can increase a person’s risk of skin cancer.
- Risk for melanoma doubles if a person experiences five or more sunburns in the lifetime.
- Tanning beds increase the odds of developing melanoma as much as 75% and have been classified as ‘cancer causing devices’ by the World Health Organization.
- Skin cancer from tanning beds affects mostly girls and young women from ages 16 to 29.
- Skin damage and skin cancer may take many years to develop after sunburn or sun damage.
- Genes, history of skin cancer and skin and hair type can increase your chances of developing melanoma.
- Sunscreen is the best form of sun protection, yet it is often used incorrectly or ineffectively.
Skin Changes to Look For
We have covered the topic of skin changes after sun damage in our article on Melanoma where we discuss the possible signs of melanoma that include a change in the appearance of a mole or pigmented area.
According to the Cancer Society, it is recommended that you consult a doctor if a mole you have shows any of the following signs or symptoms:
- Changes in color, size or shape
- Has irregular borders or edges
- Is more than one color
- Is uneven or asymmetrical (i.e., when the mole is divided in two, the halves are different in shape or size).
- The mole itches
- It oozes, bleeds, or is somehow ulcerated enough to see the tissue below the top layer layer
- Satellite moles appear (i.e., new moles grow near an existing mole).
- Once melanoma has been diagnosed, further tests are done to determine whether cancer cells have spread within the skin or to other parts of the body.
A method called the Clark Levels (see chart above) is used to describe how deeply the thin tumors have spread to the different layers of the skin:
- Level I
- Level II
- Level III
- Level IV
- Level V
The following Stages are used for melanoma:
- Stage 0 (Melanoma in Situ)
- Stage I
- Stage II
- Stage III
- Stage IV
Research by the Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA), demonstrates a connection between UV exposure from the sun and tanning beds and skin cancer. While that is not news, MRA and other research institutes are now beginning to uncover key insights about how the skin responds to UV radiation at the cellular level. Their important and ongoing research will help accelerate the development on the next generation of prevention protocols.
If you have any doubt, watch this amazing video with over 11 million hits – posted by Thomas Leveritt it shows random people how underlying (and invisible) sun damage is just waiting to emerge – it’s rather scary!
In the meantime, understanding how easily sunburn can change to skin cancer might just encourage you, or someone you love, to be extra vigilant this summer.
American Cancer Society: Skin Cancer Prevention & Early Detection