It’s a disease that will affect almost 100,000 people in the U.S. this year. More than 7,000 people will die from it.
Experts say cases of skin cancer are on the rise for a variety of reasons. According to Dr. Katie Baker, associate professor for the department of community and behavioral health at East Tennessee State University, some of the blame lays with the popularity of tanning over the past few decades.
Some of Baker’s research has been dedicated to tanning and adolescents.
“Tanning became popular in the ’80s and ’90s and now we’re beginning to see the repercussions,” she said. “Interestingly, melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, is also the second-most common form of cancer between women 15-29 years old. Because of the intense radiation women are exposed to in a tanning bed, it’s accelerating the development of those skin cancers.”
She said the dangers of tanning and skin cancer all boil down to UV radiation. She said the UV rays from the sun are UVB rays, which are shorter, don’t penetrate the skin as far and are more likely to cause sunburns.
Tanning beds use UVA waves, which are longer waves, penetrate the skin deeper and result in a tan.
But both kinds of waves are harmful to the body, she said.
“Both are wavelengths that penetrate your skin and can damage your DNA, thus resulting in skin cancer,” she said.
Pam Davis, a physician assistant at PH7 Dermatology in Boones Creek, said she sometimes uses community outreach programs to inform people of the dangers of skin cancer.
In a 30-minute class at the Memorial Park Community Center on Monday, she went through the different types of cancers and what to keep an eye out for different types of skin cancers.
She gave skin examinations after the class, pointing out areas of concern to class attendants.
“I think everyone kind of lumps it in together – ‘oh it’s a skin cancer, they’re all the same,’ and they don’t really know,” she said. ” We have a lot of farmers, we have a lot of people outside and they have a lot of places that could be potential problems.”
Davis said she works with a lot of older patients, but she said what’s alarming is an increasing number of younger people diagnosed with skin cancer.
She noted an 18-year-old patient with a melanoma spot on her shoulder. She said she attributes such cases to tanning.
“It’s like putting yourself in a microwave,” Davis said. “Because what you’ve done is you’ve put yourself in a device, you’ve closed the lid and you have intensified UV rays, and you can smell your skin cooking.”
The different sides of skin cancer
Davis said she believes melanoma is the most well-known form of skin cancer – it also happens to be the most deadly.
But it’s not the most common form of skin cancer.
Basal cell carcinoma
According to the American Cancer Society, this is the most common form of skin cancer, accounting for about eight out of 10 skin cancers. They grow slowly and are common on sun-exposed areas like the head and neck.
If left untreated, it can grow to other parts of the body, and one case of basal cell carcinoma usually means others will appear on other parts of the body.
Keep an eye out for flat areas that are pale, pink or red, abnormal blood vessels, oozing or crusting. Raised areas that are pearly, translucent, pink or red that bleed after a minor injury.
Squamous cell carcinoma
These account for about two out of every 10 skin cancer cases. They grow slowly and are usually found on the head, neck, face, ears, lips and the backs of hands. They may grow into deeper layers of the skin and spread to other parts of the body.
Keep an eye out for small, scaly or rough flesh-colored patches on sun-exposed areas. May also appear as flat, brownish patches with a rough, scaly or crusted surface.
More dangerous than basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas, melanoma develops more quickly on the skin.
Keep an eye out for uneven moles on the skin, moles with jagged edges, moles that change size, shape or color. They are usually brown or black and can appear anywhere on the skin. They are more common on the legs in women and on the chest and back in men.
Prevention and legislation
Experts agree that the best way to prevent skin cancer is to limit the amount of UV radiation that enters the skin.
This is done by wearing sunscreen or protective clothing when outside. Davis stressed to her class that sunscreen should be applied at least 1 hour before going outside so it has a chance to be absorbed into the skin.
Baker said sunscreen should be labeled at least SPF 30, and that fairer skin types are more susceptible to sun damage than people with darker skin.
Everyone should take precaution when going outside, she added, even if the sky is overcast or if it’s cold outside.
As far as tanning goes, Baker said it’s wise to stick to sunless tanning lotions and sprays and skip the tanning bed altogether.
“Indoor tanning causes more cases of skin cancer every year than tobacco use causes cases of lung cancer every year,” she said. “So legislation is just now trying to catch up. it’s interesting the lessons we’re learning from the tobacco industry, in how to regulate advertising and how to implement state-level policy.”
So far, 19 states have legislation barring minors from indoor tanning. In Tennessee, tanning is illegal for minors 15 and younger, but 16 and 17-year-olds can use an indoor tanning facility with a parent’s consent.
“That radiation is so much more intense than the sun, and it’s a different type of radiation – UVA radiation is causing so much more damage deep down in your skin,” she said. “I think because people weren’t necessarily getting burned in the tanning bed that they thought they were okay.”