Effects of unprotected exposure to sun add up over a lifetime

An 18-year-old son of a friend of Debra Hesse for years put off having doctors check out a mole on his leg.

As the mole grew and started to change shape, the young man finally got it checked out.

But it was too late. His skin cancer was in Stage 4, and Hesse’s friend lost her son months later.

“She was devastated,” said Hesse, coordinator of cancer survivor programs at St. Mary’s Hospital.

Nearly everyone knows someone who has died, been diagnosed or is a survivor of cancer.

But preventing and recognizing skin cancer is fairly straightforward.

“Skin cancer is the most common (form of cancer), but it’s also the easiest to prevent,” Hesse said. “We’re all supposed to spend 15 minutes a day in the sun, not two hours.”

Skin cancer is caused by the overexposure to the sun’s rays, which include UVA and UVB wavelengths. UVA is a long wavelength and can penetrate deep into the skin; while UVB is a mid-range wavelength responsible for tanning and burning.

Sunscreen should contain protection from both wavelengths, and not merely chosen by its Sun Protection Factor (SPF), according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Dr. L. Arthur Weber, a Grand Junction dermatologist, said people ask him all the time what kind of sunscreen to use and which brand he uses. Sunscreens that contain titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are helpful, he said, because they physically block out the sun’s rays.

However, some people don’t like the chalky white residue the lotions can leave on skin.

For a smoother application, Weber suggested consumers seek out sunscreen listed with the ingredient Avobenzone, also called Parasol or Parasol 1789.

Outside of those guidelines, it doesn’t entirely matter which brand of sunscreen you use as long as it’s used consistently and liberally, Weber said.

The average amount of sunscreen needed to cover your body should fill a shot glass, and it should ensure be at least SPF 15.

Weber compared not using any sunscreen or enough sunscreen to smoking just a little bit over a long period of time

“It’s not really bad for you if you have one cigarette a day, but if you do it long enough the cumulative effects add up,” he said.

Hesse, who was diagnosed and treated for melanoma a decade ago, said she uses “tan in a can” or skin bronzer to look browner in the summertime, in lieu of damaging her skin by the sun. She also regularly checks her body for changes in moles and freckles and sees a dermatologist once a year.

With a heightened public awareness about skin cancer, a debate has brewed concerning people who avoid the sun getting enough Vitamin D.

People with Vitamin D deficiencies are at a greater risk for prostrate, colon and breast cancers, as well as bone diseases.

A few minutes a day in the sun is enough time for most people to get enough Vitamin D, but eating oily fish, Vitamin D-fortified milk, orange juice and cereals are also good sources, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.


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