Sunday, March 1, 2015

The dark side of 300 days of sunshine

Posted By on Sun, Mar 1, 2015 at 8:10 AM

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Colorado likes to promote its “300 days of sunshine” when attracting visitors. And, while it’s unclear if we really do get 300 days of sunny weather, it’s indisputable that we typically have more sunny days than not. It’s what makes Colorado a haven for outdoor enthusiasts year-round.

Like almost anything else we enjoy, all that sunshine has its downside. According to Dr. Vinh Chung, a dermatologist with Vanguard Skin Specialists, the sunniest states in the country — Colorado, Arizona and Florida — have rates of melanoma, a form of skin cancer, 30 percent higher than the rest of the country. More alarming, melanoma is the most common form of cancer for the 25-to-29-year-old age group, and the second most common form of cancer for the 15- to-29-year-old age group. Dr. Chung believes these age groups have such high rates because they’re the most active and don’t use sunscreen.

But others are at risk too. People with a family history of skin cancer are more likely to get it themselves. And light-skinned people, such as those with a lineage from Scandinavian countries or the United Kingdom, are more susceptible than those with darker skin tones. According to Chung, research shows that people who have sustained five or more serious sunburns (blistering, etc) in their youth have an 80 percent increased chance of skin cancer later in life. And if you take medications that cause your immune system to be weakened, such as those for rheumatoid arthritis, you’re at a higher risk, too.

But it isn’t all bad news. In fact, one of the things Chung likes about his job is the very high cure rate for skin cancer —when it’s detected and treated early in its onset. Even more encouraging, prevention and detection is very easy. Chung recommends everyone get a “baseline” skin exam, a simple, visual exam, which can be done by family doctor or by a dermatologist. The advantage of having it done by a dermatologist is that if anything is found, it can be treated immediately. You can also examine yourself, and have a partner examine what you can’t see.

Schedule follow-up exams by a doctor every few years, more frequently if there is a history of skin cancer in your family. But if you see something suspicious get to a doctor soon. Chung recommends not waiting more than a couple of weeks to get it looked at.

Obviously, prevention is the way to go, and you’re likely familiar with most of the recommendations. Dr. Chung says making sunscreen part of your daily routine, with no less than SPF 30, is a good place to start. If you have a light complexion or still get sunburned with SPF 30, then try SPF 50 or higher.

Most people put sunscreen on their arms, legs, necks, etc. but don’t put any on their face. While almost any sunscreen is good, the cheaper sunscreens are usually not good when used on the face. Shop around for sunscreen with moisturizers specifically for your face. When applying, don’t forget the spots under your eyes, an area susceptible to skin cancer, and be sure to periodically re-apply sunscreen while you’re outdoors.

Clothing also protects your skin, and clothing with built-in UV protection affords even more protection. Use a broad-brimmed hat — I really like Tilley hats — to keep the sun off your face, or wear UV filtering sunglasses that are big enough to cover the areas around your eyes.

Excessive exposure to UV rays can result in a condition know as pterygium, “surfers eye,” which is a growth of tissue on the white of the eye. Although not always a serious condition, and usually treatable with medication, it can cause vision problems and require surgical intervention to correct. Chung says there are some indications that over-exposure to sunlight can be a cause of cataracts, though research is ongoing.

Treatment for suspected skin cancer starts with removing the affected lesion and determining what kind of cancer is present. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common and least serious type of cancer while melanoma is more serious, and can cause serious problems if not treated in a timely manner. Potentially cancerous lesions are typically excised, and if they aren’t too deep or haven’t gotten into the lymph nodes, the treatment is usually without any complications.

By taking reasonable precautions you can enjoy our sunny conditions in a safe manner.

Now, go outside!

Bob Falcone is a firefighter, photographer, hiker, college instructor and small business owner who has lived in Colorado Springs for over 23 years. He is the board president of the Friends of Cheyenne Canon and a member of the El Paso County Parks Advisory Board. You can follow him on Twitter (@hikingbob), Facebook (Hiking Bob), or visit his website (Hikingbob.com). E-mail questions, comments, suggestions, etc to Bob: info@hikingbob.com.

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