Young people continue to burn

Doctors warn: Protect yourself from UV rays, skin cancer
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
-A +A

Five years ago, a Roseville resident read a newspaper article about a woman's death from skin cancer that may have saved her life.

No longer would Marty Costa go without wearing sunscreen or a hat when spending time outdoors. Now she'd slather on protection and go to the doctor regularly for mole checks. In recognition of Skin Cancer Awareness Month, Costa, 50, wants others to do the same.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, with more than 2 million people diagnosed annually, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Exposure to ultraviolet rays -  including from the sun and the artificial ones in tanning beds - puts people more at risk for developing skin cancer. One in five Americans will develop this form of cancer in a lifetime. There are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incidence of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer.

Despite efforts in recent years to raise awareness about this preventable disease, some people still aren't seeing the light, according to Dr. Christine Doherty, a dermatologist with Kaiser Permanente Roseville Medical Center.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study in 2010 and released earlier this month found that 50 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds had experienced at least one sunburn in the prior year. A third of women age 18 to 21 had used an indoor tanning device.

Melanoma on the rise

There are two types of skin cancer: Nonmelanoma, comprised mainly of basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, which are the most common malignancies, according to the CDC. The much rarer melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Nearly 9,200 people in the United States are expected to die from melanoma this year, and rates of this disease have been increasing for the past three decades.

While incidence rates are on the rise, deaths caused by melanoma are decreasing among some age groups because younger patients are seeing their doctors at an earlier stage, Doherty said. But what's not changing is the risky behavior of young people trying to get tanned.

A New Jersey mother was recently charged for child endangerment over allegations she brought her 5-year-old daughter into a tanning booth.

"If you have to have a tan, it's safer out of a bottle than naturally," Doherty said.

Although some argue sunlight is a great way to boost Vitamin D levels, Doherty said that can be obtained from a healthy diet or supplements.

Costa, a nurse, is olive skinned and doesn't burn easily. She's never been an avid sunbather, so she considered herself less susceptible to skin cancer. But everyone, regardless of skin color, can get the disease, although lighter skin types have a higher risk.

"I'd go work in the yard and wouldn't use any sunscreen," she said. "I just never thought anything of it."

Then she read an article in the Press Tribune about Kelly Lafferty, a school board trustee and mother of three who died at 46 years old of melanoma.

"That left an impact," she said.

Costa now uses sunscreen daily, even though she doesn't like its feel on her skin. Doherty said that's a complaint she hears often from patients. But sunscreens now come in a variety of formulations - gel, spray, fragrance and oil-free, creams. 

'Be really smart'

Using sunscreen is critical to protecting against skin cancer.

"I never want my patients to think they can't experience the great outdoors. ... You just have to be really smart about protecting yourself from the sun," Doherty said.

People should opt for an SPF of 30 or greater, that's broad-spectrum and water resistant. The product should be reapplied every two hours. On May 16, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration postponed requirements regarding the marketing of sunscreen originally set to go into effect this summer. The rules relate to labels that describe what products can do.

"You don't have to worry about reapplying sunscreen when you're wearing sun-protective clothing," Doherty said.

She advises patients to be vigilant about applying sunscreen on the nose and lips when skiing or doing water sports, as water, snow and sand reflect light, putting people more at risk for sunburn. She says people should wear wrap-around sunglasses and hats - doctors see a lot of melanoma moles on the scalps of older people.

If a mole is new, bleeding or changing, get an expert opinion.

"I always tell my patients, 'Check your birthday suit on your birthday,'" Doherty said.

Costa began going to the doctor to have her moles examined. Her physician caught a small mole on the back of her calf that turned out to be melanoma. But they caught it early, and she's OK.

"With other cancers, you don't (have) as much control, but with skin cancer you do," Costa said.

Sena Christian can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at SenaC_RsvPT.


Tips to prevent skin cancer:

  • Find a sunscreen that works for your skin and activities, and use it regularly. Sunscreen should be SPF 30 or greater, broad spectrum (protects against UVA and UVB rays) and water resistant. Reapply every two hours, or after sweating or swimming.
  • Wear sun-protective clothing: long-sleeved shirts, pants, wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses
  • Seek shade, especially between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Water, snow and sand reflect sun, increasing chance of sunburn.
  • Perform a self-skin examination ideally once a month, or at least once annually. See your doctor with new, changing, growing or bleeding skin lesions.
  • Protect your pucker. Apply a lip balm with SPF 30 or greater.

Source: Dr. Christine Doherty, dermatologist, Kaiser Permanente Roseville Medical Center