Contrasting reports, conflicting evidence, and dazzling displays of monetarily driven misinformation have complicated the task of figuring out what the effects of exposure to sunshine can have on human wellbeing. Confusion about skin cancer, sunscreen, and general exposure to sunlight being either beneficial or detrimental is due to various factors, one of which is the belief that sunshine is either one, or the other; good or bad. By polarizing the conversation about the effects of sun exposure, the ability to find comprehensive answers to questions is made much more difficult. The majority of prominent health institutions clearly state that sun exposure is harmful, period. “Protection from sun exposure is important all year round, not just during the summer or at the beach. Ultraviolet (UV) rays can reach you on cloudy and hazy days, as well as bright and sunny days. UV rays also reflect off of surfaces like water, cement, sand, and snow. The CDC recommends easy options for sun protection: 1. Use sunscreen with sun protective factor (SPF) 15 or higher, and both UVA and UVB protection. 2. Wear clothing to protect exposed skin. 3. Wear a hat with a wide brim to shade the face, head, ears, and neck. 4. Wear sunglasses that wrap around and block as close to 100% of both UVA and UVB rays as possible. 5. Seek shade, especially during midday hours.” –Center for Disease Control Meanwhile, popular alternative medicine practitioners continually express views that are completely opposite of the mainstream institution’s statements about sun exposure and skin cancer. “UVA rays produce a tan that not only makes your skin more pleasing in appearance, but is also your body’s natural defense against sunburn. Exposure to the sun has many benefits…The key is to never burn.” –Dr. Joseph Mercola Most controversies are presented in extremes, just like the issue of skin cancer and sun exposure. Stepping back and breifly looking at a few of the basics surrounding the issue will give us the information we need in order know exactly which portions of which claims are accurate. There are three Types of Skin Cancer: Basal cell carcinoma –The most common form of cancer worldwide. In the United States, it accounts for approximately 80 percent of all skin cancers. The majority of basal cell carcinomas are easily and successfully treated with current therapies. Basal cell carcinomas rarely spread throughout the body, and deaths from this disease are very rare. However, because basal cell carcinomas often occur on the face, they can cause serious cosmetic damage if not diagnosed and treated early. Squamous cell carcinoma –The second most common form of skin cancer, accounting for about 20 percent of skin cancers in the United States. The vast majority of squamous cell carcinomas can be cured when detected early. However, this type of skin cancer can be more difficult to treat and can cause cosmetic damage if not treated immediately. Squamous cell tumors can be more aggressive than basal cell tumors and are slightly more likely to spread to other parts of the body. Melanoma –The aggressive and often deadly form of skin cancer that begins in skin cells called melanocytes, which produce the pigment melanin. Melanoma is not as common as the two other major types of skin cancer (basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma) – the average lifetime risk of developing skin melanoma is about 1 percent. Much of the confusion regarding the connection between sunshine and skin cancer can be traced back to the public’s inability to differentiate the first two types of relatively benign cancers from the third, and often deadly cancer, Melanoma. According to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, “Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the single most important cause of skin cancer, especially when the overexposure resulted in sunburn and blistering.” This is a true statement that can be misleading if we don’t ask which skin cancers they are referring to. Further inquiry would reveal that “although it is clear that UV radiation can damage DNA, and that high levels of sun exposure are associated with melanoma risk, the exact relationship between UV exposure and melanoma remains unclear.” – Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Here we see the same renowned cancer center seemingly contradicting itself, when in reality it is simply clarifying. Melanoma, the aggressive and often deadly skin cancer that most Americans fear, has not actually been clearly connected to the sun’s UV exposure. Due to genuine concerns on both ends of the argument, cancer centers and alternative medicine practitioners both are guilty of exaggerating portions of the scientific evidence that suit their respective agendas. The public at large is best served by knowing basic facts, which prepares them to better interpret information from all the various experts. This also serves to build a healthy (verses a blind trust) trust in the many media outlets, recognized medical experts and alternative medical sources. Knowing that there is more than one type of skin cancer and that the causes for Melanoma are still being established is key for consumers. This is a great starting place. Look for Part II of Sunshine And Skin Cancer, where I will explain the causes of the other two skin cancers, whether or not sunscreen helps to prevent any type of skin cancer, natural prevention claims etc. Talk to you then!
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