Melanoma Monday

Hartford, Connecticut? When I think of Hartford, I tend to think of insurance. Now there’s something else to associate with Hartford: The city ranked No. 1 in a survey by the American Academy of Dermatology that measures how smart they are at preventing and detecting skin cancer.

After a long cold winter, we all want to get outdoors and soak up some rays. Failing to use caution, though, can come with a high price tag: a diagnosis of skin cancer or, in its deadliest form, melanoma.

Every year the American Academy of Dermatology hosts Melanoma Monday at the beginning of May. It’s actually a month-long campaign focused on helping the public become better educated about protecting their skin from sun damage and knowing the signs of potential skin cancer. Topics this year, for instance, include what to expect at a skin screening, how to choose an effective sunscreen, and risk factors for skin cancer.

The “suntelligence” survey, conducted this past winter, involved some 7,000 respondents in 26 U.S. metropolitan areas. Ranking just behind Hartford were Salt Lake City in the No. 2 slot and Denver, No. 3. Minnesota generally fares well on most health measures but that wasn’t the case this time. Minneapolis, St. Paul and Bloomington, which were included in the survey, ranked No. 20 out of 26.

I checked out my own suntelligence with the online survey (you can find it here, on the Melanoma Monday website). It was reassuring to find out I scored pretty well. Not all the questions were easy to answer. Many of them, in fact, focus on prevailing and difficult-to-dispel beliefs about the relative health of sun exposure. Can you get sunburn on a cloudy day? (Yes.) Are sun lamps and tanning beds safer than sunlight? (No.) Can you get skin cancer on parts of your body that are not exposed to sunlight? (Yes.)

Not all that long ago, suntans were viewed by most Americans as healthy and desirable - the deeper the tan, the better. Fair-skinned people like me were, at best, pitied and, at worst, seen as pathetically dorky. I can’t say these views have completely changed. Tans still tend to be prized, especially among the young. But there seems to be a lot more recognition these days that there’s nothing wrong with skin that’s untanned or only lightly tanned. When pale-skinned models start showing up in the pages of Vogue magazine, you know attitudes have begun to change.

Getting this message across to young people is not easy. It’s hard to get past the notion that tan skin = “healthy”. The statistics, though, are anything but healthy.

Skin cancer in fact is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States. Although melanoma makes up only about 5 percent of this, it still accounts for more than 68,000 new cases of cancer each year. Alarmingly, the incidence has been rising the most among young white women and older white men. Because sun damage tends to start accumulating early in life, even the unprotected sun exposure we get as children and teens can come back to haunt us later in life.

Basal cell carcinoma, the most common and slowest-growing form of skin cancer, is sometimes overlooked because it’s comparatively easier to treat. But it’s not something to be shrugged off either. These cancers have been known to invade surrounding tissues, with unfortunate and sometimes disfiguring results.

The bottom line? When you see suntanned skin, what you’re really looking at is sun-related damage. We can’t avoid all sun exposure; indeed, a certain amount of sunlight is actually healthy. But it behooves us to be aware and to protect our skin. Having to hear the words “you have melanoma” is a pretty high price to pay for that golden tan.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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