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Health blog

A Killer Tan

The other day on television, the hostess was admiring a model’s “killer tan,” saying how good she looked in a bright pink sundress.

Killer tan is an expression that means exactly what it says, tans can kill. More than one million Americans each year are diagnosed with skin cancer. If they’re lucky, it’s “only” basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma – potentially disfiguring but seldom fatal. But melanoma – the most deadly form of skin cancer – can and does kill.

While melanoma is not as common as – say breast, lung, or prostate cancer – the incidence of melanoma has been steadily increasing for the past thirty years. In contrast, many forms of cancer have been declining. In fact, melanoma is now the second most common cancer among teens and young adults between 15 and 29 years old. Melanoma is not an equal opportunity cancer. It is largely a disease of light skinned people, although it can strike people of all skin colors. The risk of getting melanoma is 1 in 50 for whites, 1 in 200 for Hispanics, and 1 in 1,000 for African Americans.

Cancer is largely a disease of damaged DNA. In the case of skin cancer, ultraviolet radiation damages the DNA within cells. When DNA is so damaged that it cannot repair itself, or it cannot commit cellular suicide (a process called apoptosis), the mutated cells live on to split and pass their mutations to the next generation. Having even one blistering sunburn as a child or adolescent increases the risk for melanoma.

But sun is not the only source of radiation. Many young people turn to tanning beds for their killer tans. Some in the tanning industry deny that ultraviolet radiation from tanning beds is harmful. Yet last year, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer moved tanning beds to Group 1 – carcinogenic to humans. Also in this highest-risk category are arsenic, asbestos, cigarettes, mustard gas, and plutonium!

Tanned skin is damaged skin. While UV radiation is not the only cause of melanoma, it is the only cause that is completely preventable. So take care of yourself and the young people in your charge by following this advice: Slip-slop-slap . . . and wrap. Slip into a long-sleeved shirt. Slop on the sunscreen every two hours. Slap on a wide-brimmed hat. And wrap UV-blocking sunglasses around your face.

For more information: American Academy of Dermatology, www.aad.org; American Cancer Society, www.cancer.org; American Melanoma Foundation at www.melanomafoundation.org; the CDC at www.cdc.gove/cancer/skin; and the Skin Cancer Foundation, at www.skincancer.org.
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