When I was a teenager I did some stupid things, but looking back I think that the worst decision I made was to go to a tanning salon. At the time I remember tanning salon staff assuring me that it was “safer than the real sun” and the fastest way to get a healthy-looking glow. “You could bake in the sun all day, or spend 20 minutes in a tanning bed for the same effect” said the staff. So after trying several sunless tanners in varying shades of orange and having them slough off like patches of dirt, I decided to make my alabaster skin a nice, even shade of light caramel with months of tanning each year.
Fast forward twenty some-odd years and I’m in the surgeon’s office having a wide-margin re-excision of a melanoma on my back. I’d been wearing sunscreen since my early twenties, carefully protecting myself from UV radiation. I had realized the error of my ways after a serious conversation with a dermatologist, but I had “gotten religion” about skin protection too late. My fate was already set from the tanning bed exposure.
A new study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ)estimates that tanning beds may be responsible for hundreds of thousands of non-melanoma skin cancers per year in the United States. As for melanoma (the deadliest kind of skin cancer), the World Health Organization has determined that the risk of melanoma is increased by 75% when the use of tanning devices starts before age 30. In fact, they classify tanning bed exposure as a “group 1 carcinogen” – in the same class of human toxicity as asbestos, tobacco, and mustard gas.
I was surprised to learn how common tanning bed use is, especially in Europe. According to the BMJ study, 10.6-35% of people in Germany, France, Denmark, and Sweden have used a tanning bed at some point in their lifetimes. The global nature of this problem is daunting – and with research suggesting that tanning has addictive properties, it may be as difficult to get people to avoid tanning salons as it is to have them quit smoking.
As for me, I learned my lesson and I have the scars to prove it. I was lucky that a dermatologist caught my melanoma before it spread, but now I need to be on the look-out for more of them and redouble my efforts to stay out of the sun. If you’ve ever used a tanning bed and have fair skin and freckles, you should probably keep your dermatologist on speed dial. That temporary “sun-kissed glow” can easily turn into wrinkles and Frankenstein scars in the not too distant future – along with a potentially fatal cancer diagnosis. Trust me, it’s not worth it.
In years gone by, I spent far too much time removing small skin bumps in the office. At the time, I was sharing space with another doctor who was profiting by any service I provided. His staff scheduled me with tons of things that simply made me no money. [Meanwhile his stuff diverted some of my better business into his schedule as opposed to mine.]
The facts of life are that medicine is a business and when I am paying a huge chunk of change to overhead, I need to make that back or I operate at a loss.
Patients frequently don’t understand why I cannot remove their moles for what their insurance pays and make a profit. Well, Read more »
Do you ever wish you didn’t have so many moles? It might be too late for you, but it doesn’t have to be for your kids. By reducing their sun exposure, you can reduce the number of moles (also called nevi) they develop.
Sunburns and excess sun exposure are triggers for moles to develop. Having lots of moles can be unsightly and increases their risk of developing melanoma later in life. Reducing excess sun will limit the number of moles they have and reduce their risk for melanoma many years from now.
Protect against sun to reduce moles.
Many of us grew up without good sunscreens (baby oil and iodine anyone?), but you can do so much more for your children: Read more »
Several years ago, I was telling a patient about the importance of doing routine screening for skin cancer – by far the most common type of cancer in the U.S., affecting over a million people a year. She volunteered that she was covered, that she was seeing a dermatologist routinely for Botox injections. “Does he do a complete head-to-toe exam?” I asked. Her pause and sheepish expression told me all I needed to know. She wasn’t at all covered – because she was never uncovered.
Fortunately, the majority of skin cancers found each year are basal cell or squamous cell – the types that have a very high chance of being cured. The National Cancer Institute estimated that fewer than 1,000 people died from these “non-melanoma” cancers in 2008. Melanoma is another story, affecting over 62,000 Americans a year and causing over 8,400 deaths. The majority of melanomas occur in older patients but almost 1 percent are diagnosed under age 20 and almost 8 percent are found between ages 20 and 34. So you’re never too young to start thinking about ways to prevent skin cancer and ways to keep track of what’s happening with your skin.
Since I was in medical school in the mid-’70s, the number of yearly cases in the U.S. has more than doubled. Early detection is likely one reason for the increase but nobody is exactly sure what has been causing the dramatic rise. What is clear, however, is that early detection is the name of the game when it comes to curing melanoma. The earlier a lesion is found, the better the chance of cure – which brings us to the main point of this blog. Everybody should be getting routine head-to-toe skin exams. This means looking from head to toe at every millimeter of your body, including where the sun doesn’t shine. Skin cancers can occur in any location of the body, including the armpits, scalp, between the toes, in the groin or anogenital area – anywhere! Routine self-exam should be part of your screening regimen. If a partner is available who can examine hard to see areas such as the small of the back – all the better.
In addition, I feel that routine screening should include a well-trained health professional who is interested in performing a careful skin exam. This is where it can get tricky. We live in a time when sub-specialists abound – even among dermatologists. A patient may see a cosmetic dermatologist several times a year for Botox injections. The dermatologist may glance at areas of exposed skin but the patient should not feel that a full screening skin exam is being routinely performed. The patient I described at the top of this blog had magical thinking – somehow reasoning that she’d received skin cancer screening just because she’d seen a dermatologist, even though she hadn’t taken her clothes off! Trust me: no doctor is good enough to detect skin cancer without examining the skin.
When the CBS Doc Dot Com team was brainstorming for segment ideas recently, producer Jessica Goldman came up with the idea of following her through a complete evaluation with a dermatologist. That brings us to today’s episode with New York City dermatologist Dr. Francesca Fusco, who covers a wide range of skin issues, from cancer prevention to cosmetic dermatology.
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