Having grown up aristocratically pale (not to be confused with glaringly white) among more sultry, olive-complected Cajun women, I understand the desire to tan. Even after 35 years of sunburns and aloe vera, part of me still hoped I could be some color other than snow white or crawfish red. However, recent reports on the rise in incidents of melanoma among women under 40 have cured me of the compulsion to tan.
Skin cancer incidents continue to rise in the U.S. A study published this April in Mayo Clinic Proceedings reports, "From 1970 to 2009, the incidence of melanoma increased by eightfold among young women and fourfold among young men ... This finding may be explained by some sex-specific behaviors that lead to different UV (ultra-violet) light exposure. Young women are more likely than young men to participate in activities that increase the risk of melanoma, including voluntary exposure to artificial sunlamps."
In the long term, overall incidents of skin cancer are still greater in men than women, but that may be changing as more young women emulate the Jersey Shore look. East Jefferson General Hospital dermatologist Barbara Bopp suspects a lack of education about the dangers of tanning beds may be partly to blame.
"UVA and UVB are the two main types of ultraviolet rays that affect our skin," Bopps says. "UVB rays burn the skin, and it's the repetitive burns that lead to skin cancer and especially to melanoma. However, UVA rays — the rays used in tanning beds — potentiate the skin cancer risk and have adverse effects on the aging of our skin."
UV exposure causes an abnormal bond in the DNA. Although the body usually is able to repair the damage through a cellular process, sometimes mutations are formed during the repair process which can develop into carcinomas. The more UV a person absorbs, the more opportunity for mutations to form.
Age and genetics play parts as well. As we age, our bodies no longer heal as efficiently as they did when we were younger, which is probably why, until recently, melanoma was not much of a concern for people under 30. Blondes and redheads with light eyes are the most susceptible, but Bopp points out melanoma is not exclusive to fair-skinned people. "I've had dark-eyed, dark-haired patients with a history of melanoma," she says.
You can protect yourself from skin cancer by wearing full-coverage sunscreen on all exposed body parts when you go outside, making sure to cover easily missed areas like your ears and the backs of your hands. Wear hats and sunglasses that offer UV protection. For athletes and others who spend a lot of time outdoors, there are clothing lines that offer protection from the sun. And of course, avoid tanning beds.
Bopp also suggests adding dermatology to your list of annual exams.
"When melanoma is detected early, the five-year survival rate is 98 percent," Bopp says. "But if they are not detected early, especially if they include distant lymph nodes and other organs, the five-year survival rate is only 16 percent."
A dermatologist should give you a full body scan, paying special attention to any spots or moles that have changed recently. The American Cancer Society website suggests using the "ABCDE" rule of melanoma to check for suspicious moles and telling your doctor if you have any that fit this description.
A is for asymmetry: One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.
B is for border: The edges are irregular, ragged, notched, or blurred. C is for color: The color is not the same all over and may include shades of brown or black, or there may be patches of pink, red, white or blue. D is for diameter: The spot is larger than about 1/4-inch (the size of a pencil eraser), but keep in mind that melanomas can be smaller than this.
Tell your doctor about any new or unusual growths on your skin or any lesions that do not heal. "The key is change," Bopp says. "And the most important thing is to detect it early. Then you can survive."