Melanoma in Millennials

Erin Coakley, PA is the author of this blog post on a topic which is very important to her.

Many still “tan” despite the dangers of sun exposure

As a young person we feel invincible, as though nothing in the world can ever hurt us; especially something that seems as harmless as the sun.  Unfortunately, even as a dermatology physician assistant, I indulged in sun tanning as a teenager and into my early twenties.  My generation of millennials knew the harmful effects of the sun but would still apply tanning lotion (without SPF) and lounge for hours out at the beach.  I’ve been lucky to remain unscathed by skin cancer but many of my young patients haven’t been so fortunate.  With May being Skin Cancer Awareness Month I’ve made it my platform to educate all of the young individuals I can, telling patients that they too are at risk and their actions now will affect their future.

It’s estimated that just 5 sunburns during your lifetime doubles your risk of developing melanoma.

The vast majority of melanoma cases are caused by exposure to the harmful UV radiation given off by the sun. Many of my patients are unsuspecting and when skin cancer does strike, it often brings a heavy guilt because many of us do know the risks of sunbathing and sunburns.  There seems to be a disconnect between knowledge and action.

According to a survey conducted by the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), 98% of women ages 18-34 understand that they are at risk of skin cancer when they tan – yet they still soak in the sun and use tanning beds.

Media may be to blame for this perception to look tanned, and young women especially desire the “sun-kissed” look because they believe it will make them more attractive or appear slimmer come swim suit season. The reality is that tanning speeds the aging process of our skin and greatly increases our risk of skin cancer. Australia has an excellent melanoma campaign targeted at its millennials and I like to pose two of their questions to my patients:

  • Would you quit doing something if you knew doing it just once would increase your change of getting cancer by 75%?
  • Would you quit doing something if you knew it would cause you to look less attractive in the future?

As a dermatology PA, I work hard to change the tanning perception held by my patients.  I encourage them to remember the key points about protecting their skin:

  • Wear sunscreen daily on your face and any other sun exposed areas (minimum SPF 30)
  • Seek shade whenever possible and do your best to avoid sun exposure between 10 am and 4 pm
  • Wear tightly woven clothing, sunglasses and wide brimmed hats
  • Avoid tanning beds and the idea that a base tan will help protect your skin. (According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, many young women still use indoor tanning beds, unfortunately, and using indoor tanning devices before age 35 can increase your risk of melanoma by 59 percent, with the risk increasing with each use.)

Melanoma doesn’t discriminate

I also tell my patients that melanoma can occur in anyone.  It’s most common in my sun worshipers, but I also see it in many of my patients who have had just one bad sunburn or in patients of color. We can find melanoma in areas the sun does not reach – the scalp, mouth, fingernails, bottom of your feet, or even intimate areas.  If you see something, don’t wait. Come in and get checked!

Skin cancer is treated most effectively and successfully when caught early. If you have concerns about your skin or see any new growths, don’t wait! Take a look at your skin once a month and get to know your freckles. If you see something, get it checked. Time can make the difference with skin cancer. See your board certified dermatologist or dermatology PA once a year for a head to toe skin exam. Lastly, embrace your skin and cover up. Don’t try to be anything that you aren’t. That “summer glow” isn’t worth your life and you’ll start to see the effects of skin damage so much sooner than you thought.

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