How to Avoid Skin Cancer
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Cover up on the trails with sunscreen and clothing
Those of us who devote time each day, or most days, to running outdoors gain great health …
Photo courtesy of the CDC
Those of us who devote time each day, or most days, to running outdoors gain great health benefits, with lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and other ailments that are on the rise. But running regularly also means being exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, which is the single biggest risk factor for developing skin cancer, according to Dr. Jerry Brewer, a dermatologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
“Anyone who spends more time outdoors in the sun, including runners, is at increased risk for skin cancer, including melanoma,” he says.
Each year, 3.5 million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer, making it the most common form of cancer. Dr. Brewer says this translates to roughly one in every five Americans developing skin cancer in their lifetime. And while melanoma, the most deadly form, accounts for only five percent of all cases, it causes 75 percent of all skin-cancer-related deaths. And, says Dr. Brewer, the incidence of melanoma is on the rise.
“Currently one in 55 Americans will develop melanoma. and melanoma is eight times more likely in young women than it was back in the 1970s,” he says. “The survival from melanoma depends on how early it is caught, with deeper melanomas having a higher chance of spreading and causing death.”
The good news is that survival rates have improved in recent decades: in 1996, 92 percent of melanoma patients survived long-term, whereas the survival rate of melanoma was only 49 percent from 1950 to 1954.
The bad news?
“One person dies from melanoma every hour in the U.S.,” says Dr. Brewer.
Luckily for those of us who need our outdoors fix, skin cancer is preventable—we just have to vigilantly use precautions. Dr. Brewer suggests running earlier or later in the day to avoid peak sun exposure, as well as wearing hats, training in shaded areas when possible and applying sunscreen.
“Apply a sunscreen 30 minutes prior to an event or run with an spf of 50 to 75, higher if possible, which will provide good coverage for a number of hours,” he says.
He also notes that the most common locations for skin cancer are the nose and ears, since they are most exposed, even under hats, and we often forget to put sunscreen on, for instance, the tops of our ears. “Usually these [areas] are affected by basal or squamous cell carcinoma,” says Dr. Brewer. “Melanoma can occur anywhere on the body, even areas protected by the sun.”
Sunscreen has found itself at the center of an academic and scientific controversy in recent years, as multiple studies claim to have produced evidence that certain chemical ingredients of standard sunscreen, such as phenylbenzimidazole, can produce a reaction when exposed to the sun that damages DNA—a precursor to cancer. While chemical-free sunscreen, offered by Burt’s Bees and other companies, is an option for runners who are concerned about the risks, Dr. Brewer says there is scant evidence to support the claim that chemical-free sunscreen is safer. “Although there have been recent attacks on sunscreens, sunscreens continue to be one of the safest and most effective ways of protecting yourself from one of the most common carcinogens known to man—ultraviolet radiation.”
While runners often shuck extra layers on a hot, sunny day, Dr. Brewer encourages us to stay covered—even if it’s uncomfortable. “Extra clothing is always on option,” he says. “There are a lot of runner-friendly shirts that are long-sleeved, with material that allows the skin to breath well and sweat through the material, so you don’t feel the heat of normal long-sleeved shirts.” SPF-treated clothing can also be found at most outdoor retailers.
Elite ultrarunner Michael Arnstein, who wore a long-sleeved shirt for much of the notoriously hot Western States 100 last year and plans to cover up at Badwater this summer, recommends skin-cooling clothing from De Soto and the Wicked Lite shirt from Mountain Hardwear. “The trick to keeping this stuff amazingly cool is to keep it wet,” he says, noting the clothing has to be white. “Way cooler than being exposed to the sun in skin.”
Even if you are steadfast in trying to prevent it, skin cancer can still occur. Learning to identify potential cancerous spots on your skin can be key to getting treatment early and preventing complications.
Dr. Brewer recommends performing skin checks once per month, as well as seeing a dermatologist regularly. “Anyone who is out in the sun frequently, like most runners, should have their skin looked at by a dermatologist once a year,” he says.
He says any moles that appear to be changing color, shape or size, that bleed or itch, or that are new, should be examined by a dermatologist.