The skinny on skin cancer: One doctor's personal experience (Part II)

Posted by David Asp, Ed.D.
May 24, 2016

Dr Asp and Kathy

Most people enjoy a beautiful sunny day, and there are many benefits of sunshine. In addition, our culture tends to project the image that the sun is healthy and that a tan body is better, healthier and more beautiful than a white body. As a result, many people spend hours in the sun or going to tanning beds to tan their skin. However, we’ve learned that there is a tremendous danger to our skin when we use tanning beds or overexpose our skin to the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

Some exposure to the sun is not entirely bad. A measured amount of sun exposure will facilitate vitamin D production, which is good for bone health and supports the health of the brain and immune system. Also, some sun exposure helps treat skin disorders, such as psoriasis and atopic dermatitis. Sunlight can assist people affected by seasonal affective disorder and can give people a sense of well-being. On the flip side, too much ultraviolet radiation from the sun leads to premature skin aging (wrinkles, lax skin, brown spots) and damage to our DNA, which causes mutations in skin cells that cause skin cancer. 

Stats on skin cancer

It’s a myth that skin cancer is a disease that affects only old people. Anyone can get skin cancer, and it occurs in people of all skin colors and ages. According to the Melanoma Research Foundation, one in five Americans will get skin cancer in their lifetime, and the incidence of melanoma is increasing. Melanoma has one of the fastest rates of increase compared to other types of cancers. Here are some other statistics you may not know about:

  • From 1960 to the present, melanoma is increasing roughly 20 to 50 percent every five years.
  • From 1980 to 2004 the incidence of melanoma in young women increased by 50 percent.   
  • Melanoma is the second most common cancer among 15- to 29-year-olds and is the No. 1 cancer in young adults age 25 to 29.
  • In males ages 15 to 29, there has been a four-fold (333 percent) increase in melanoma from 1970 to 2009.For females ages 15 to 39, there has been an eight-fold (706 percent) increase. 
  •  In males ages 40 to 60 from 1970 to 2009, there has been a four-and half-fold increase, and in females age 40 to 60 in the same timeframe a 24-fold (2,333 percent) increase in melanoma!

When there is damage to the skin cell’s DNA, this prompts the skin cells to produce more melanin, which is the pigment that gives our skin its color. The melanin production signals there is DNA damage and tries to protect the skin from further damage. Repeated ultraviolet exposure continues to accumulate. Therefore, the risk of skin cancer increases.

Any tan, whether you get it on the beach or in a tanning bed, is bad news because it is an indication of skin cell damage caused by harmful ultraviolet radiation. There is no such thing as a safe or protective tan as any tan is a sign of skin damage. According to the Melanoma Research Foundation, individuals using tanning beds are two-and-a-half times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma, one-and-a-half times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma and 75 percent more likely to develop melanoma than those who do not tan.

Many states, including Minnesota, outlaw tanning bed use for anyone under the age of 18.Tanning bed equipment has been classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as carcinogenic and is placed in the same category as tobacco, arsenic and plutonium.

David Asp, Ed.D., is a psychologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing.

Read parts one and three of Dr. Asp's personal experience with melanoma.

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