Summer Sun and Melanoma

By Jason K. Rivers, MD, FRCPC

The warmth of the summer sun can be a welcome change, encouraging outdoor activities such as swimming, hiking, gardening, or even just sitting outside to absorb the sun's rays. However, we now know that being in the sun for too long can not only burn the skin, but can cause more serious health problems such as melanoma.

What is Melanoma?

Melanoma is a very serious form of skin cancer that can be fatal if not caught early on. The good news is that it can be curable if it is detected and treated in its early stages. In men, melanoma is most often seen on their upper back. Women often have it on their lower legs, but it can occur anywhere on the body, including under the fingernails, toenails or on the palms or soles. If you're concerned about to possibility of having melanoma, go to www.skincancerguide.com to find out more about what melanoma is and what to look for.

Canadian Cancer Society recently noted that while the incidence and death rates for most cancers in Canada are stabilizing or declining, melanoma rates are increasing. Recently released cancer statistics show that since 1988, there has been a 41% increase in the death rate for melanoma in men and a 23% increase in women. This year more than 3,900 Canadians are expected to be diagnosed with melanoma and approximately 840 people will die from it.

Melanoma Risk

People with the following characteristics have the highest risk for melanoma:

  • Fair complexions that burn or blister easily
  • Blond or red hair
  • Excessive sun exposure during childhood and teen years, blistering and sunburns before age 18
  • Family history of melanoma
  • More than 100 moles or more than 50 if you are under 20 years of age.

You can view a brief online video about melanoma.

Some Sun Protection Tips:

  1. Avoid being outdoors between 11am and 3pm
  2. UV reflection from sand, water, pavement cement and snow can redirect up to 85% of the sun's damaging rays, so beware of these reflective surfaces.
  3. Check your local paper or radio station every day for the UV index. The higher the number, the greater the need for eye and skin protection.
  4. Beware of cloudy days, as the UV light can still burn your skin.
  5. Wear sunscreen with a minimum of 15 SPF, and if you have a higher risk for melanoma, you should be using a minimum of 30 SPF.
  6. Wear sunscreen under your clothing; a standard T-shirt only provides SPF protection of 5 to 8.
  7. Be sure your sunglasses have UVA and UVB protections, which should filter at least 80% of the sun's rays.
  8. Don't forget to apply sunscreen to your lips and ears!

About the author:
Jason Rivers, MD, FRCPC is a Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of British Columbia.. He qualified as a dermatologist in 1986, having trained in Ottawa, Canada and London, England. Subsequently, Dr. Rivers spent one year at the Skin and Cancer Unit at New York University and studied for two years in Australia where he was involved in melanoma research. Dr. Rivers served for seven years as National Director of the Canadian Dermatology Association's Sun Awareness Program, and also participated in Environment Canada's forum to develop the UV index. His current practice includes cutaneous oncology, general dermatology, laser, and cosmetic dermatology


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