Grand Junction elevation, sunshine put residents at risk for skin cancer

Grand Junction’s elevation and status as the seventh-sunniest city in the United States puts its citizens at risk for skin cancer.

Not that any city’s residents are immune. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anyone with naturally light skin tone, natural red or blonde hair, a personal or family history of skin cancer or a history of sunburns in childhood is at elevated risk for skin cancer.

With hot summer weather sneaking up fast this year, dermatologists are reminding people during May, National Skin Cancer Awareness Month, to slather on sunscreen, cover up as much as possible and wear protective sunglasses when hiking, biking, lounging by the pool or enjoying any outdoor activity for longer than 15 minutes.

Dr. Richard Stiefler of Colorado West Dermatology advises people to schedule their outdoor activities before 10 a.m. and after 2 p.m. as much as possible to avoid skin damage. A good rule of thumb, he said, is to limit sun exposure when a person’s shadow is shorter than the person is.

Grand Junction residents experience sunny days about 275 days each year, but sunscreen is advised even on cloudy days. Clouds can filter UV rays, which are the leading cause of skin cancer, but they do not block those rays, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Elevation is another factor in sun damage. Dr. L. Arthur Weber of Mountain West Dermatology, 790 Wellington Ave., Unit 104, said UV radiation and skin cancer risk increase by 4 to 5 percent for every 1,000 feet above sea level a person is. Grand Junction is about 4,500 feet above sea level. Colorado National Monument is nearly 7,000 feet above sea level at its highest point, and Grand Mesa climbs more than 10,000 feet above sea level.

“The main thing that will cut down on risk is prudent sun-exposure practices,” Weber said via email, and he recommended the following:

■ Plan activities for before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. when the sun is not as intense.

■ Keep skin covered that does not have to be exposed.

■ Wear wide-brimmed hats.

■ Apply sunscreen at least SPF 30 or higher one-half hour before sun exposure.

Dr. Amy Paul, who works with Weber at Mountain West, added people should get regular skin checks from their doctors, seek a referral to a specialist if the doctor finds a lesion, avoid tanning beds and take sunscreen wherever they go so they can reapply throughout the day.

Weber and Stiefler said they see a steady stream of skin cancer patients. Both said the local popularity of a range of outdoor activities, from recreational hobbies to construction and farming jobs, can contribute to skin cancer.

“It’s very prevalent here. Really, nationally it’s prevalent,” Stiefler said of the skin cancer rate.

Colorado ranked fifth nationwide for its melanoma death rate in 2007, the most recent year data is available. That year, the state had seven melanoma deaths for every 200,000 Coloradans.

Melanoma is the third-most-common form of skin cancer and the deadliest. The two more prevalent types are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

Also in 2007, Colorado ranked 21st in the nation for rate of melanoma cases, with 20.2 cases for every 100,000 residents, according to the U.S. Cancer Statistics Working Group.

People who are worried something on their body may be a sign of skin cancer should check for a new growth on the skin that is scabbed, ulcerated, bleeding, growing and changing, or a sore that will not heal, Stiefler said.

General surgery can remove the cancer by cutting it out, scraping it off and/or burning it. In some cases, a skin cancer patient may need Mohs surgery, a specialized procedure that involves removing cancer-containing layers of skin, radiation treatment or a topical cream.

Weber said the type of treatment a person needs depends on the type of skin cancer, where it is on the body, the size of the cancer, whether the area has been previously treated, and a few other factors, such as if the cancer appears in a scar.

Weber, who works almost exclusively on surgical treatment for skin cancer, said he is seeing more young patients than ever before.

“It used to be that my patients were in their 60s, 70s, and 80s,” he said. “Now it does not seem unusual to see skin cancer patients in their 30s and 40s.”


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