For most of us sun-starved Canadians, summer is an opportunity to shed our pale winter skins and replace them with the healthy glow of deep brown tans. But even the most ardent of sun-worshippers knows that 'tan' and 'healthy' don't belong in the same sentence. Over the past four decades, scores of medical studies and assessments have alerted us to the dangers of tanning. Regardless of the data, we seem unwilling to listen. Now, a study published in the Aug. 10 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that there has been a sharp rise in skin cancer rates over the past 30 years, especially in young women.
Non-melanoma skin cancer is by far the most common cancer in Canada, with over 77,000 cases reported each year. Unlike melanoma cancer, the disease is rarely fatal, which may be one of the reasons that it is considered less urgent a health issue than other cancers. However, the treatment of non-melanoma cancer can leave disfiguring scars, and the rising costs threaten to put an immense strain on our already over-burdened health care system. In countries with northern climates, skin cancer rates are increasing exponentially, a factor many attribute to excessive sun tanning in summer and the use of sun-beds during the winter months. It seems clear that for a country like Canada, this is a medical issue that needs immediate addressing.
The most recent figures, pulled from a study conducted in Olmstead County, northern Minnesota, show some dispiriting results. The researchers looked at the incidence rates of the two different types of non-melanoma cancers -- basal cell and squamous cell. Basal cell cancers typically look like pearly white, shiny craters on the skin, while squamous cell cancers appear as reddish brown, scaly blemishes.
Researchers looked at the years between 1976 and 2003, when 485 people below the age of 40 were diagnosed with non-melanoma cancers. The rate of basal cell cancers rose to 32 per 100,000 from 13 per 100,000 in the female population, more than doubling in less than 30 years. Men showed a rise from 23 to 27 per 100,000. Squamous cell cancers rose from 0.6 to 4.1 per 100,000 in the female population, while men saw an increase from 1.3 to 4.2 per 100,000. Equally worrying is the fact that the cancers are recurring at a rapid rate, often within three years of initial treatment. The implications of this are immense -- some patients can expect a lifetime of non-melanoma cancers.
Although this data is cause for concern, the good news is that non-melanoma cancers are largely preventable. There are plenty of excellent sunscreen products on the market, and we should make a habit of using them. Sun-beds, which according to the World Health Organization can expose us with up to 10 times the UV of mid-summer sun, should be avoided. As desirable as a little bit of colour may be, we need to balance the risks with the benefits. Tan-in-a-bottle, here we come!