To Your Health: No such thing as a safe tan
By Dr. Adam I. Riker May 22, 2012 3:14PM
Dr. Adam I. Riker
Updated: July 2, 2012 9:24AM
The main reason people get skin cancer — especially melanoma — is too much sun exposure.
Whether it is getting a bad sunburn at a young age, too much sun while running shirtless or playing golf, the sun is the primary cause for melanoma. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
We need to consider skin type — pale, freckles, fair skin — the number of moles on your body — over 50 being a risk factor — and even the color of your eyes and hair. These all contribute to your chances of developing melanoma in the future.
There is no such thing as a safe tan (except the spray-on tan).
There also is lots of proof that using tanning beds causes all types of skin cancers, especially melanoma. There is so much evidence that the World Health Organization has declared UV-rays in any form as a group I carcinogen.
UV irradiation is in the same category as other known carcinogens, such as tobacco smoke, asbestos and plutonium. There are at least 20 states with laws in place that require parental consent or prevent teens from using a tanning bed altogether. If you are a parent of teens, do not allow them ever to use tanning salons as this greatly increases their chances of getting a melanoma.
I tell all of my patients to perform full body naked skin exams at home once a month.
In particular, your spouse or significant other should pay special attention to each other’s back and the head and neck area (especially in the scalp area), as well as any other area difficult to see. Everyone should receive a full body naked skin exam by their primary practitioner or dermatologist at least once a year.
These ABCs are a simple but effective skin self-examination tool. If you see any of these things, make an appointment for further evaluation:
Asymmetry — An imaginary line down the middle of the skin lesion shows a difference in appearance between the two sides.
Border irregularity — If the outer edges of the skin lesion are jagged or irregular
Color Change — Most melanomas contain a dark black pigment call melanin. If you notice a lesion has changed color in any way, even a subtle change.
Diameter increase — The usual size that may start to raise concern is six millimeters or greater in diameter. This is the diameter of a pencil eraser. If a lesion began as a small spot and several months later it is clearly larger.
Elevation or evolution — If you put your finger across the lesion and it feels raised and irregular.
Types of skin cancer
There are three major types of skin cancer: basal cell, squamous cell and melanoma.
Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer is 100 times more common than melanoma, but melanoma is the most dangerous. It accounts for six out of seven skin cancer-related deaths in the United States. Melanoma is highly curable if recognized early and effectively managed with surgical removal.
No matter how much you may try, you cannot hide from the sun. We are constantly exposed to the sun, even on cloudy days.
During the summer especially, wear sunblock, SPF 15 or greater, bring a beach umbrella and stay out of the direct sun during peak hours of 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Most importantly, protect children with sunblock, hats, sunglasses, long-sleeve shirts and cover the feet at all times.
The mainstay of treatment remains surgical removal of most skin cancers. For melanoma, we may often look at the lymph nodes to see if they also involved with melanoma. Once melanoma has spread beyond the lymph nodes to other parts of the body, it is very difficult to treat.
Despite tremendous research efforts and new drugs for stage 4 patients, most patients will die as a result of their melanoma. The simple fact is melanoma is the most rapidly increasing cancer in the U.S. in women between the ages of 20 and 40.
Dr. Adam I. Riker is a surgical oncologist who specializes in the management of melanoma, non-melanoma skin cancer, breast cancer and sarcoma.
He is the medical director of the melanoma program and a senior member of the multidisciplinary breast cancer program at the Cancer Institute of Advocate Christ Medical Center.