Chuck, I was in a discussion the other day with a co-worker, and he said we can get skin cancer from things besides the sun. What are those covert culprits? – Tom L., San Antonio
July is UV Safety Month, so there is no better time to address this question than now. And let’s not forget that the skin is the largest organ in the human body.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 3.5 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancers, also known as non-melanoma cancers, are diagnosed annually in the U.S. Melanoma, the more dangerous type, will account for more than 76,600 cases of skin cancer in 2013. It also accounts for roughly 9,000 of the 12,000-plus deaths caused by skin cancer each year.
The ACS says basal and squamous cell skin cancers are very common, very treatable and often found in sun-exposed areas – such as the head, neck and arms. Melanoma is more difficult to treat and is usually brown or black, but it also can be pink, tan or even white. And a fourth type of cancer, skin lymphoma, starts in cells that are part of the body’s immune system.
According to the ACS, risk factors for non-melanoma and melanoma skin cancers include:
Being exposed to excessive or unprotected ultraviolet radiation, such as that from sunlight or a tanning booth. (The ACS says: “Tanning beds and sun lamps are dangerous. They also damage your skin.”)
Having suffered severe sunburns in the past.
Having pale skin, being easily sunburned or having natural red or blond hair.
Having many or unusual moles.
Your or a family member’s having had skin cancer.
That is why Dr. Sherrif Ibrahim, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, told HealthDay: “Hands down, sun exposure is the biggest risk factor for skin cancer. And it’s a cumulative risk. The more exposure you’ve gotten the bigger the risk. The skin doesn’t know if you’re out one time for an hour or 12 times for five minutes at a time. Your skin keeps a running meter.”
Tanning booths have been linked to skin cancer diagnoses because “the kind of light produced by tanning beds isn’t better or worse than natural sunshine, but people may get more and longer exposure, especially in areas where outside they might display more modesty,” according to Dr. Alan Fleischer, a dermatology professor at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
However, the sun and tanning booths are not solely responsible for skin cancers. There are other things that might seem to have little to do with skin but have strong correlations or links to skin cancer.
For example, Ibrahim explained that people who have organ transplants increase their odds by 200 times of having skin cancer because of medications that have to be taken to suppress the immune system.
And Fleischer explained that people with autoimmune diseases, who often take the same medications, also can increase their chances of developing skin cancer because of those drugs.
In addition, some of the genes that cause Parkinson’s disease have also been linked to skin cancers. And on-the-job exposure to coal tar pitch, creosote, radium, arsenic compounds and some pesticides also may give rise to skin cancer.
Fleischer said that even getting a manicure exposes one to UV radiation, which is used to harden polishes.
Compact fluorescent light bulbs, the so-called eco-friendly light bulbs, recently were studied by Berlin’s Alab Laboratory and found to release several carcinogenic chemicals and toxins – such as phenol, naphthalene and styrene – when merely turned on.
One other popular trend making it more difficult to recognize potential skin cancers is tattoos.
HealthDay noted: “Although tattoos aren’t known to increase the risk for skin cancer, tattoos can make it harder to detect cancer-related changes in moles. If you’re considering a tattoo, make sure there aren’t any moles in the area you’re thinking about inking, according to experts from the American Academy of Dermatology.”
Next week, I will discuss some surprising cures and preventive measures for skin cancer and some cautions about the ingredients in your sunscreen, which may be exacerbating your sunburns and your skin’s aging.