Q: Isn’t it unrealistic to ask people to avoid sun exposure to lower their risk of skin cancer?
A: As a skin cancer patient myself, I took special interest in the recently released “Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer” by acting U.S. Surgeon General Boris D. Lushniak. The reality—which most of us didn’t know—is that an estimated 5 million people are treated for skin cancer every year in the U.S. at a cost of more than $8 billion. And the other reality is that many of these cases and expenses—although certainly not all—could be prevented if we only did what we already know works.
Skin cancer has always been looked at through a different lens than other cancers. Squamous and basal cell skin cancers have been called “simple,” “essentially benign” and “easy to treat.” Melanoma, on the other hand, although much less frequent, can be much more serious in terms of treatment and prognosis. But I can say from experience that treatment for the more common skin cancers can be anything but simple. Moreover, recent research has shown that a diagnosis of skin cancer—especially among younger folks—is associated with a significant increase in the risk for other, more serious forms of cancer.
Lushniak pointed out that we could do much more to prevent skin cancer in the first place. Increasing awareness and practicing sun-safe behaviors at a young age and throughout life is very important. Tanning beds alone are responsible for 400,000 cases of skin cancer every year, of which about 6,000 are melanomas.
No one is saying you must stay out of the sun. Enjoying the beach and being physically active outdoors are among the pleasures of life. But activities like these come with avoidable risks, namely, the effects over years of damaging the skin and increasing the possibility of developing skin cancer, even when we are younger.
Be an ambassador for good health and spread the word to your families, your friends and your community that being sun safe is very much a part of a healthy lifestyle. We know what we need to do to prevent skin cancer, and now is the time to do it.
—Len Lichtenfeld, MD, is deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. Send questions for him to email@example.com.