Everyone is at risk to develop skin cancer. Recent publication of new research has raised concern about those of us who spend a great deal of our time outside in the sun for fun or work. Dr. Darrell Rigel of New York University looked at a select group of adults with out door summer jobs three years in a row.
The staggering news was that we are 5 to 20 times more likely to develop melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer, with more and more time in the sun. They were able to identify six risk factors that led to greater sun exposure and greater risk of skin cancer. It is very simple. The more of these risk factors you have the greater the risk.
Risk factors that the study identified were:
1. An outdoor summer job.
2. History of blistering sunburn
3. Having naturally red or blond hair
4. Freckling of the upper back
5. Personal history of previous melanoma
6. History of actinic keratosis
The study participants were 18 to 70 years of age, a good sampling across a broad range. Having fair skin or a past history of two or more episodes of blistering sunburn confirm our previous understanding of how those innocent events lead to greater risk of skin cancer. Actinic keratosis is a form of sun damaged skin that can be a precancerous condition. The skin remembers or accumulates sun damage over a lifetime in many small installments. The average lifetime risk of developing a melanoma is relatively low at 1.5%.
Having even one of these risk factors increased the odds by more than twice to 3-5%. Dr Rigel’s study actually looked at over 40 risk factors but these six were the only ones that correlated closely with more frequent skin cancer. An interesting note is that age alone without a history of excessive sun exposure was not a risk factor. Editorial comments by Dr Rigel summarized that the real risks are simply “genetic susceptibility and exposure to ultraviolet light”.
These findings emphasize the need for preventive measures when spending time outdoors. Liberal and frequent use of sunscreens and appropriate clothing to minimize the damaging effects of excessive sun exposure is critical. In the future there may be other more sophisticated ways to decrease our susceptibility. For now basic common sense and consistent use of inexpensive tools like sunscreens and sun block can make the difference in a life free of skin cancer.