We’re halfway through summer, and truthfully, we all know that sun safety is important. We all know we should wear sunscreen, stay away from tanning beds and do everything in our power to avoid a sunburn.
But what one melanoma expert says most of us don’t know is that there’s actually no healthy way to tan at all.
“Skin changing colour is a sign of damage, and your skin trying to protect the body,” says Annette Cyr, founder of the Melanoma Network of Canada, and a three-time melanoma survivor.
“If you continually affect your genetic code by damaging it through UV radiation, eventually something slips by or something stops working, and that’s when cancer starts to grow.”
In other words: forget getting that base tan before going on vacation, and shun the “healthy” summer glow. Like everything even remotely cool, getting a tan is actually bad for you.
What exactly is melanoma?
Melanoma is a kind of skin cancer that starts in the melanocyte, the skin cell that makes melanin. It’s one of the country’s most common cancers, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. And it’s the deadliest kind of skin cancer, but also among the most preventable.
Melanoma rates are slightly higher in men than women, and it’s more likely to affect people with fair skin, red hair, and a history of sunburn. Young people between 15 and 29 are the most likely to be diagnosed. But people of all genders, ages and ethnicities are at risk.
In 2017, the most recent year for which there’s data, 7,200 Canadians were diagnosed with melanoma. 1,250 people died from it.
The vast majority of melanoma — 90 per cent — is caused by UV radiation, according to a 2014 special report by the Canadian Cancer Society.
Canadians are spending more time in the sun than they did in previous decades, but taking fewer protections from all that sun.
Watch: Dermatologist warns about three places where lack of sunscreen can lead to skin cancer. Story continues after the video.
For some people, skin cancer is genetic, Cyr says. But many more can prevent it. “That’s 10 to 15 per cent of the population,” she says. “The rest? Highly preventable.”
And numbers for skin cancer continue to rise, even as other more easily detectable diseases are falling.
“Breast cancer and prostate cancer and colon cancer, the numbers are actually starting to decline, which is great to see,” Cyr said. “But the cases of melanoma are going the opposite direction.”
For Cyr, the first sign of melanoma was an itch on her ankle. It was 2001, and she was in her late 30s. Her husband suggested she get it checked out, but she didn’t — she was working on her MBA, and she didn’t have a lot of free time.
When she mentioned it to her doctor at her annual physical, eight or nine months after the itching started, he said the small mole on her ankle was probably nothing serious, but offered to refer her to a dermatologist as a precaution. The dermatologist agreed it probably wasn’t anything major, but offered to remove it just in case. A week later, it came back positive for melanoma.
“The common belief is that you need to be exposed to the sun to get your Vitamin D... it's a perpetual urban myth.”
“That just shocked the heck out of me, I’ll tell you that,” Cyr said. “I was young, I never had any illness in my life.” She had very fair skin, and sunburned so easily it had been something of a joke when she was growing up. But, she never thought she’d get cancer.
She spent the next five years getting repeated surgeries, skin grafts, MRIs, bone scans, CT scans. After six years, she thought she was cancer-free — but then it came back. Five years after that, it happened again.
Cyr is now cancer-free, in part because of immunotherapy treatments that were introduced in Canada during her last bout with melanoma. But like anyone who’s battled cancer, she can’t know for sure that it’s definitely gone forever.
“But at least I’m cancer-free for now,” she said.
Just like with breast or prostate cancer, it’s a good idea to test yourself for skin cancer by looking for any irregular moles.
The commonly-used acronym is ABCDE: look for asymmetry, border irregularity, colour inconsistency, diameter that’s large, and evolution.
Besides our mistakes about tanning, there are a ton of other things we’re getting wrong about melanoma, Cyr says. Here are a few of them:
- Sun exposure is the best way to get Vitamin D. This is a “perpetual urban myth,” Cyr says. You should get Vitamin D though your diet, or failing that, through supplements.
- Sunscreen contains harmful ingredients. This is a common reason why some people don’t wear sunscreen, or opt to make their own.
- You don’t need to wear sunscreen if it isn’t sunny outside. Clouds don’t protect from UV rays, unfortunately — so your skin can be damaged even when it’s grey and cloudy. In fact, it’s a good idea to wear sunscreen even in the winter, because a sunny winter day can be just as damaging to your skin as the summer sun.
- Melanoma will be instantly detectable. You should always check your skin for irregular moles, Cyr says.
Luckily, there are easy things you can do to lessen your risk of melanoma.
- WEAR SUNSCREEN. Real sunscreen, not suntan lotion or moisturizer that contains SPF. All over your body. And all the time, not just on the very sunny days.
- If you can, avoid the outdoors at the hottest time of day, between about noon and about 4 p.m.
- Wear a hat. They’re on trend these days!
- Seek out shade when possible.
Cyr says she thinks it would be easy for most people to adapt to better skincare habits. “We spend a lot of money on health food, health products, exercise plans,” she says. “We also need to do some things for our skin.”
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