We’re approaching the time of year when many of us will spend a lot more time in the sun, so soon our radios and TVs will resound with warnings about skin cancer.
The warnings are somewhat overblown. True, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., but this is mostly due to basal cell carcinomas, an almost harmless type of cancer that affects hundreds of thousands of people.
May is “Skin Cancer Awareness Month” and if you haven’t already, it’s a good idea to check your skin for signs and symptoms of skin cancer. Let’s take a look at how to identify skin cancer, as well as some proven ways to minimize future sun damage and still enjoy the summer sun. . .
First, how to spot the three main types of skin cancer…
Basal cell carcinomas (BCCs) most often develop on skin areas typically exposed to the sun, especially the face, ears, neck, scalp, shoulders and back. These look like an open sore or a reddish patch of skin that doesn’t heal. They may also appear like a shiny bump, pink growth, or scar-like area. They could ooze, bleed, crust or appear flaky.
Squamous cell carcinomas (SCC) are common on sun-exposed areas such as the ears, face, scalp, neck and hands. SCCs look like scaly, thick, rough patches of skin that can crust or bleed. They can also look like open sores or warts that don’t heal.
Melanomas can appear on any area of the body, even in areas that are not typically exposed to the sun. They often resemble moles that have irregular edges.
When it comes to skin cancer, the type you must worry about is melanoma. It’s extremely invasive and deadly. This year, 186,680 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in the U.S. and 7,990 sufferers will die (might even be more, since many dermatologists have said they’re unaware of reporting requirements).
Melanoma tends to strike more young people than most other cancers. Its rate is highest among white people though other races aren’t immune, and it especially affects those who’ve been sunburned, hence the saturation media coverage about the dangers of sun exposure.
If you see signs of skin cancer—or something that you think might be skin cancer—visit your dermatologist as soon as possible for treatment, which usually includes a biopsy and removal of the offending spot.
It’s also a good idea to take steps to prevent cancer. And that includes more than just wearing sunscreen and covering up when you’re out in the sun. It takes a great deal of all-around oxidative stress, or free radical damage, to develop any kind of skin cancer. And there are several ways to lower the oxidative stress in your body. Here are four I recommend…
Anti-Skin Cancer Strategy #1: Eat Smart
If you get a lot of sun exposure, but pair it with a healthy diet that includes loads of antioxidants, there’s a good chance you’ll curb any cancer from developing. In fact, sun exposure itself is a free radical problem. The trouble with the sun’s ultraviolet wavelengths is that they damage skin cells by causing the release of free radicals. If those free radicals damage your DNA, you could wind up with cancer cells that replicate. Fortunately, many antioxidants in your skin can help neutralize those free radicals and thus prevent skin cancer.
In fact, eating antioxidants is a proven way to keep free radical damage at bay throughout your body. And you can get plenty in your system if you eat a lot of fruits and vegetables (I recommend organic), and supplement with nutrients like vitamin C and E, along with a variety of other herbs and vitamins. I’m also a big advocate of staying hydrated and adding lots of omega-3s (healthy fats) to your diet.
You should also load up on carotenoids, the compounds that give foods like carrots and sweet potatoes their vivid colors. You’ll find them in green leafy vegetables, yellow and orange-colored fruits and vegetables, and red beets.
What’s great about carotenoids is that they act as a natural sunscreen to the plants that produce them. So, if you eat them, you get similar benefits: a level of natural sunscreen, plus antioxidants that scavenge for free radicals and protect your cells from oxidative damage.
Anti-Skin Cancer Strategy #2:
Use the RIGHT Sunscreen
Not only is your skin your largest organ, it also protects you against pathogens and extreme temperatures and provides sensation and insulation.
The problem with sunscreen when it comes to skin cancer is that you’re basically slathering your skin with toxins. Rubbing toxic ingredients into your body’s key defense against toxins won’t do your health any favors, since your skin is vital when it comes to your body’s detoxification process.
Despite the unstinting praise it gets in the media and from conventional doctors, sunscreen is known to cause rashes, hormonal problems, and yes, maybe even cancer. According to Dr. Arthur Perry, well-known dermatologist and founder of Dr. Perry’s Skincare, the popular chemical sunscreens many people use contain endocrine disruptors and interfere with the function of hormones in our bodies, which potentially leads to cancer—especially breast cancer.
I’m not saying you should forego sunscreen completely, especially if you plan to spend the day at the beach. But you need to choose the right sunscreen. For starters, stay away from anything with benzophenone, which is one of the most common sunscreen ingredients and is known to cause cancer in animals.
Choose a safe sunscreen
Safe alternatives include “physical sunscreens,” which don’t get absorbed into the body—though they can leave a white sheen on your skin. That’s because physical sunscreens sit on the surface of the skin and reflect the sun. They’re basically made of crushed rock, ground down to a fine consistency. Your body can’t absorb rocks.
Physical sunscreens contain zinc, titanium, or both. Plus, they’re good options if you have sensitive skin. Zinc oxide is the white stuff that some lifeguards smear on their noses to prevent burn.
Many dermatologists say there haven’t been conclusive studies on the link between chemical sunscreens and cancer, but when poisoning takes place over decades it’s pretty tough to get an accurate study going. I believe the effects are subtle and take a while to show up, but they’re there all the same. Conventional science has not made any real effort to find out.
This is another case where people think the government checks everything out and “surely it wouldn’t be on the market if it was dangerous.” Well, they don’t check things out – certainly not long-term effects such as cancer that don’t show up at once. Here’s a list of sunscreens approved by the Environmental Working Group.
I’ve also read that a solution of powdered vitamin C in water, smeared on the skin, prevents sunburn in a pinch—but that would be an expensive and messy endeavor!
Anti-Skin Cancer Strategy #3:
Get More Of This “Sunshine Vitamin”
Ultraviolet radiation can be good for you—if you’re talking about UVB (ultraviolet-B) radiation. That’s what your body needs to manufacture vitamin D. Though keep in mind, depending on your skin tone, you may only need a few minutes of sun at midday to make what you need (those with darker skin tones will require more sun exposure). When you have healthy levels of vitamin D, you’re better protected against all types of cancer. Plus, there are scores of diseases linked to vitamin D deficiency. And because the primary source of vitamin D is the sun, you can come by it naturally and—thank heavens—free of charge.
Sadly, Big Pharma sees vitamin D as a threat to their profits. Here’s their skewed logic: If people get enough vitamin D, their general health will be better, and they won’t need other drugs. Because of this, representatives of the pharmaceutical industry recommend shockingly low levels of daily vitamin D intake—just 600 IU/day of vitamin D3 and only 20 ng/ml of serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentration. This directly contradicts recommendations of vitamin D researchers which call for much higher doses – several thousand IUs per day.
I say, don’t limit yourself when it comes to vitamin D. The benefits are too numerous. The lives saved and diseases prevented thanks to sunshine-generated vitamin D far outnumber the tiny number of additional melanoma cases. Just be sensible and don’t overdo your time in the sun.
Anti-Skin Cancer Strategy #4:
This one will surprise you. Aspirin is another way to lower your risk of skin cancer. Researchers at Stanford University looked at data on 60,000 women over 12 years and found that those who took daily aspirin reduced their risk of melanoma by 20 percent. The theory is that aspirin beats back cancer cells before they grow and prosper.
The benefits appear to rise from long-term use, so I don’t believe popping an aspirin before you go outside will do any good. This is not a sunscreen, it’s a systemic (whole body) tip for reducing cancer risk by getting inflammation under control.
I don’t endorse the notion of a daily aspirin, pushed by many heart doctors. But this study does point up the benefits of anti-inflammatories for preventing cancer, and it does so in quite a dramatic way. Achieve the “aspirin effect” with safe, natural anti-inflammatories like omega-3 fatty acids (e.g., fish oil), curcumin, and digestive enzymes.
Skin protection pays dividends in the long run
If you’re the type who likes to have the sun-kissed glow that comes from a good tan, you can get it naturally. Simply eat more yellow and red fruits and vegetables. A recent study in Scotland showed that doing so gives your skin a more attractive glow—but without the harmful effects of tanning or using fake-tan creams.
Bottom line is, don’t forget to pay a lot of attention to your skin. Sun exposure isn’t the only threat, and sunscreen is far from being the best solution. Remember your skin is subject to premature aging for a variety of reasons, including poor hormonal balances, bad nutrition, dehydration, stress, lack of sleep, alcohol, and smoking. These things will age you, so follow the advice above to protect your skin and avoid skin cancer.
“A Glowing Study. Fruit and Vegetables Can Make Us More Attractive!” By Claire Georgiou, Reboot Naturopath, 22 March 2012. http://www.rebootwithjoe.com/a-glowing-study-fruit-and-vegetables-can-make-us-more-attractive/
“Evaluation, treatment, and prevention of vitamin D deficiency: an Endocrine Society Clinical Practice Guideline.” Holick MF, Binkley NC, et al. J Clin Endocrinol Metab, “The Journal of clinical endocrinology and metabolism.” 2011 Jul;96(7):1911-30.
“Make Vitamin D, Not UV, a Priority.” Skin Cancer Foundation: Vitamin D. http://www.skincancer.org/healthy-lifestyle/vitamin-d/make-vitamin-d-not-uv-a-priority
“Melanoma Surveillance in the US: Melanoma, Ultraviolet Radiation, and Socioeconomic Status.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Podcasts at CDC. http://www2c.cdc.gov/podcasts/player.asp?f=8621339
“Naturally Protect Your Skin from the Sun (with food!)” By Claire Georgiou, Reboot Naturopath. http://www.rebootwithjoe.com/naturally-protect-your-skin-from-the-sun/
“Skin Cancer Statistics.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Cancer Prevention and Control. http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/statistics/