With skin cancers on the rise, tans come with high costs
Wendy Fontaine’s childhood was filled with outdoor rituals — skiing in the winter and spending every day at the beach in the summer.
But applying sunscreen was not a ritual for her family.
Fifteen years ago, Fontaine’s mother was diagnosed with a benign form of skin cancer, the first of several bouts. Her father also has had cancerous spots removed from his body.
Now both her parents avoid the beach and protect themselves with sunscreen and hats when they do go in the sun, Fontaine said.
But neither Wendy nor her husband, Larry, uses sunscreen that offers much protection. The Norwich, Conn., couple lounged on the beach recently, and Wendy slathered on SPF 4 sunscreen and Larry used a tanning oil with carrot and Vitamin E but no sun protection.
Cases of skin cancer have been on the rise since dermatologist Douglas Tanksley started practicing a quarter century ago.
About 25 years ago, one out of every 2,500 to 3,000 people would develop melanoma, he said. Now, about one of 75 people will develop melanoma.
“If that curve plots out the way statisticians have plotted it, it’s going to be one in 25 (in 2020),” Tanksley said. “That means one in every 25 people walking around is going to have a melanoma.”
Tanksley’s practice sees between 100 and 200 new melanoma cases in a year, with more people in their teens and 20s being diagnosed. He’s not sure why there have been so many new cases, but he said it could be because people spend more time in the sun, changing genetics within the population and a loss of ozone in the atmosphere.
Jeffrey Gordon, medical hematology/oncology director at Day Kimball Hospital in Putnam, Conn., said he believes the increase likely is due to better education about skin cancer and better diagnosis techniques. He sees about 30 cases of melanoma a year, but more are diagnosed in the practice without needing his consultation.
“It really starts with people taking a look at their skin and, if they see something that they’re questioning, to get it checked out,” Gordon said.
Most melanomas can last for two years without spreading to other parts of the body, Tanksley said. Melanomas diagnosed early have a survival rate in the mid- to high-90th percentile, while a person with melanoma that has spread to the lung or brain probably will survive only 10 to 12 months, he said.
The key to prevention is being aware of the risks involved and establishing good sun-prevention habits, Gordon said.
“There is a risk; you have to be aware of it,” Gordon said. “It starts with the parents, trying to give good habits to their children.”
Wendy Fontaine knows this — she applied SPF 15 sunscreen to her daughter, Erin Coombe, 9, made her wait a bit before swimming in the ocean and reapplied lotion every hour.
Fontaine checks herself regularly for potentially cancerous spots and talks to her mother if she sees something abnormal. But she still does not use protective sunscreen.
“I should protect myself so I’ll live, so my little one will have a mother,” Fontaine said. “(But) I love being tan.”
Reach Marisa Maldonado at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ARE YOU 'TANOREXIC'?
Tanorexia is the term used to describe a condition in which a person participates in excessive outdoor sun tanning or excessive use of other tanning methods (such as tanning beds) to achieve a darker skin complexion because they perceive themselves as unacceptably pale. Although the syndrome has not been officially described by the medical community, reported symptoms may include: intense anxiety if a tanning session is missed, competition among peers to see who can get the darkest tan and chronic frustration about the color of one's skin, with the affected person being convinced his or her complexion is lighter than it actually is. (Wikipedia)