With over 4000 people diagnosed with skin cancer every year in New Zealand (that’s around 11 every day) and our wafer thin ozone earning us the worrying title of highest melanoma incidence rate in the world, you’d have to be foolish not to verse yourself in the art of staying sun smart.
1. To gauge your risk, look back
Specifically to when you were young. While melanoma rarely occurs in kids, studies have shown that childhood sunburn makes you more susceptible. This is mainly due to the cumulative cancer-causing effects of the sun. You see, the earlier the skin is damaged by the sun — taking the form of a tan as well as a burn — the more likely the level of cellular damage reached can translate later on into skin cancer. Another reason is that because a child’s immune system is not fully developed, they are yet to possess the biochemical defence mechanism that normally helps an adult’s body tackle at least some of the harmed cells and repair them before cancer has a chance to form. As a result, these damaged cells can rear their ugly head in adulthood.
2. Dark skin doesn’t mean you’re invincible
Yes, ethnic groups with greater melanin stores (the protective pigment that gives skin and eyes their colour) have more protection against UV rays. But, while this equates to a lower risk of developing skin cancers including melanoma, it doesn’t render you entirely immune. Melanoma can still occur. Black or brown discolouration under the nails, on the soles of the feet and palms of the hand is the most common form of melanoma in African-Americans and Asians and can often advance more quickly than superficial spreading melanoma.
3. Spent time in a sunbed?
Even more lethal than exposing yourself to true sunlight, the harmful UV rays of a sunbed can corrupt skin cells on a DNA level. Over time, this disturbance can build up to cause skin cancer. So, even if you no longer subject yourself to the tanning bed, any time spent in one previously can still deem you more susceptible to skin cancer. In fact, studies suggest that the use of sunbeds before the age of 35 is associated with a 59 percent increase in the risk of melanoma.
4. Keep track of your nearest and dearest
Because the body’s ability to repair itself depends in part on one’s genes. And so it should come as no surprise that signs of your risk of illnessessuch as melanoma can be linked to the cases that have occurred within a family. If a close relative (parent, brother or sister) has been diagnosed with melanoma, it’s likely you have inherited genes that place you at a higher risk.
5. High doses trump continued exposure
Research suggests that a greater risk of melanoma occurs with occasional high doses of sun exposure (for example, over the holidays or during summer activities) compared to more continuous sun exposure, such as daily tending to the garden. This is the same reason why short periods of intense, irregular UV exposure — like that of a sunbed — can have a major impact for the rest of your life.
6. Your frontline of defence should be physical
The quickest way to get sun smart effectively is by slipping on a t-shirt, slopping on some sunscreens AND slapping on a hat. It’s important to also seek shade to keep you safe when the sun is beating down.