Patricia Krentcil, aka “Tanning Mom,” made her way into the headlines last week, accused of taking her young daughter into a tanning booth. As if that wasn’t jaw-dropping enough, just take a look at Krentcil’s overly tanned skin. She makes the “Jersey Shore” cast look downright pale.
And while much of the world chooses to make a mockery of Tanning Mom, we prefer to turn her unhealthy tan into a lesson — particularly since May happens to be Skin Cancer Awareness Month.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer over the course of a lifetime. Thirteen million Americans are living with a history of nonmelanoma skin cancer, and about 800,000 are living with a history of melanoma, the most dangerous form.
You don’t have to be part of that statistic. The Skin Cancer Foundation calls skin cancer a “lifestyle disease.” Why? Because, although we can’t completely control whether or not we develop it, there are a number of choices we can make to help minimize our chances.
“About 90% of nonmelanoma skin cancers and 65% of melanoma cases are associated with exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun,” said Perry Robins, M.D., president of The Skin Cancer Foundation. “Everyone, regardless of skin color, should make staying safe in the sun a priority and incorporate sun protection measures into their daily life.”
And if those stats aren’t enough to scare you into a bath of sunscreen, a Mayo Clinic study, published in the April issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings, found a dramatic rise in skin cancer in young adults under 40.
Researchers found that the incidence of melanoma has escalated — eightfold among young women and fourfold among young men. The lifetime risk of melanoma is higher in males than females, but the opposite is true in young adults and adolescents.
“We anticipated we’d find rising rates, as other studies are suggesting, but we found an even higher incidence than the National Cancer Institute had reported using the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Result database, and in particular, a dramatic rise in women in their 20s and 30s,” said lead investigator Jerry Brewer, M.D., a Mayo Clinic dermatologist.
The culprits? Indoor tanning bed use and childhood sunburns, plus ultraviolet exposure in adulthood can all contribute to melanoma development, according to researchers.
The study also had some good news. Mortality rates from the disease have improved over the years, thanks to early detection and prompt medical care.
“People are now more aware of their skin and of the need to see a doctor when they see changes,” Dr. Brewer said. “As a result, many cases may be caught before the cancer advances to a deep melanoma, which is harder to treat.”
The best strategy is prevention. So before you run to the tanning salon or park yourself under the sun for hours, check out the following tips for healthier skin:
• Stay in the shade. The sun is strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., so be careful during that time of day. And follow the “shadow rule,” said the Skin Cancer Foundation. If your shadow is shorter than you are, the sun’s UV radiation is stronger; if your shadow is longer, UV radiation is less intense.
• Prevent sunburns. Your risk for melanoma doubles if you have had five or more sunburns at any point in your life.
• Avoid tanning and UV tanning booths. UV radiation from tanning machines has been known to cause cancer, and the more time you use them, the higher the risk. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, tanners who make four visits to a tanning salon per year can increase their risk for melanoma by 11%, and their risk for the two most common forms of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, by 15%.
• Cover up. Clothing, broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses are all fair game. Choose densely woven and bright-or dark-colored fabrics. If possible, wear long sleeves and long pants.
• Apply sunscreen. Use a broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day. If you plan on being outdoors for hours, use a water-resistant, broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Apply 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) of sunscreen to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours or immediately after swimming or excessive sweating.
• Keep newborns out of the sun. You can apply sunscreens on babies over the age of six months. It only takes one severe sunburn in childhood to double a child’s chances of developing melanoma later in life.
• Examine yourself. This means a self-exam from head to toe every month, which can help detect the early warning signs of skin cancer. If you notice any change in an existing mole or discover a new one that looks suspicious, see a physician immediately.
• Learn your ABCDEs. Consult a dermatologist if a mole has any of the following: Asymmetry (one side is different from the other); Border irregularity; Color variation (one area is a different shade or color than another); Diameter equal to or larger than a pencil eraser; and Elevation (it is raised or has an uneven surface)
• Make an appointment. See your physician every year for a professional skin exam.