With the warm weather and long days of summer finally here, people are spending more time outdoors. While many people are aware of the need to protect themselves from the sun, reducing children’s exposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays is especially important. In fact, teaching kids to be sun-safe now can benefit them for the rest of their lives.
Skin cancer is a broad term that refers to any cancer that begins in skin cells. More than 3.5 million Americans are diagnosed with it every year. Basal cell carcinoma, which tends to occur in areas that receive the most sunlight (head, neck, hands, etc.), is the most common form of skin cancer and accounts for about 80 percent of cases. Squamous cell carcinoma, which accounts for about 20 percent of skin cancers, is also common in areas with high sun exposure. Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. Although it accounts for only about five percent of skin cancers cases, it’s the cause of more than 75 percent of the 12,000 annual skin cancer deaths in the U.S.
The primary risk factor for skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, including sunlight, sunlamps and tanning beds. The greater exposure, the greater the risk. Skin cancer is more common where the sun is strong, such as in the South. People who have had at least one severe (blistering) sunburn, frequent sunburns as a child, or used sunlamps or tanning beds before age 30, are also at increased risk.
In fact, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), childhood sunburns are an important risk factor for skin cancer. The Skin Cancer Foundation, a non-profit devoted to skin cancer education and prevention, offers a stark warning: suffering one or more blistering sunburns in childhood or adolescence more than doubles a person’s chances of developing potentially-deadly melanoma later in life.
But although skin cancer can be deadly, it is also highly preventable. There are several simple things you can do to reduce your children’s exposure to damaging UV radiation while still allowing them to enjoy the summer weather.
·Play in the shade: The sun’s UV rays are most intense between 10 am and 4 pm. Remind kids to play – or at least take breaks – in shaded areas in order to limit UV exposure. Getting out of the sun can also reduce their risk of heat illness.
·Sun screen: Teach children to apply one ounce (about the size of a golf ball) of sunscreen to all exposed areas 30 minutes before outdoor activities. Teach them to cover areas such as the back of their ears and neck, and the tops of their feet and hands. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays, with an SPF of 30 or higher. Reapply every two hours and especially after swimming or sweating.
·Sun-safe swimwear: Look for bathing suits that cover more skin – swim shirts, one-piece suits and long trunks come in fashionable colors and styles for both boys and girls. Many types of swimwear are now rated with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF); the higher the UPF, the more protection they provide.
·Ban the tan: Like pink or burned skin, a tan is a sign of DNA damage to skin cells, a risk factor for developing skin cancer. Remind teens especially that tanning – whether “laying out” in the sun or using a tanning bed – increases skin cancer risk and also causes wrinkles and other skin blemishes.
·Cover up: While tightly woven clothes provide the best protection against UV rays, wearing a t-shirt in the pool and outdoors provides more protection than wearing no shirt (for boys) or a two-piece bathing suit (for girls). Wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses also help protect sensitive skin on the neck, face and around the eyes (for boys, a baseball cap is still better than no hat at all).
·Be aware: A light cloud covering often doesn’t completely block UV rays, it may only diffuse them; it’s still possible to get sunburned on a cloudy day. In addition, concrete, sand and water can all reflect the sun’s rays – so reapply sunscreen any time you’re outdoors during peak hours. Keep in mind that Caucasians have a greater risk of developing skin cancer than non-whites.
What’s important to remember is the leading risk factor for skin cancer is exposure to UV rays, whether from the sun or a tanning bed. The more exposure you have, the higher your risk. And because it’s virtually impossible to go through life with no sun exposure, we all have some level of risk.
Fortunately, there are several ways to lower your risk by reducing your exposure to the sun’s harmful rays. Children especially will benefit from learning how to protect their skin. Most important, these simple actions can be practiced beyond childhood into adulthood, enhancing sun safety and reducing skin cancer risk at any age.
For more information about skin cancer risks, signs, symptoms and treatments, visit the Cancer Treatment Centers of America website at: http://www.cancercenter.com/skin-cancer.cfm.
Navneet Dhillon, MD, is a medical oncologist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Newnan, Ga. Among her clinical specialties is treating people with melanoma.