For those who live in cold weather climates, including Colorado, spring can’t come soon enough. After a long winter, who is not ready for sunshine? But, in warm weather months, the sunshine that couldn’t come soon enough also comes with a significant price.
The ultraviolet light contained in sunshine, in too high a dosage, can cause an extremely dangerous form of cancer, melanoma or skin cancer. Put another way, energy from the sun is radiation. If the radiation damages the DNA, it can cause a skin cell to take on a bizarre, uncontrolled growth spurt resulting in cancer.
Anyone who fails to take the right precautions against excessive sunlight is a candidate for melanoma. “It’s the third most common cancer,” says University of Colorado Medical Center dermatologist, Dr. Theresa Pacheco. Detected early, melanoma is treatable. Otherwise, it is almost always fatal.
While melanoma presents a far greater risk to those with lighter or fair complexions, Latinos and African-Americans should not think the threat of melanoma does not apply to them. In fact, in just the last 15 years, growth in melanoma rates among Latinos has gone up each year. Researchers so far have no explanation for this pattern of a 3 percent annual growth rate among Latinos. But, what’s worse is that because Latinos are usually diagnosed late for this disease, survival rates are much lower.
There is very little in the way of a silver lining in late-diagnosed melanoma. “If you have a melanoma that has spread,” Pacheco said, “you have a survival rate of about 16 percent.” Taken another way, 84 out of every hundred late-diagnosed cases are terminal. “That is a pretty significant figure.”
Until recently, research into this form of cancer has not shown a lot of promising data. But two new drugs on the market have given hope to a small group of skin cancer patients and buoyed those of doctors who for years have been unable to share a lot of good news to their patients.
“I’ve never seen a drug like this,” said University of Colorado Professor of Medicine Dr. René Gonzalez. The drug is Ipilimumab. “This drug has doubled survival.” That does not mean a cure for the cancer, only that it extends the person’s life which is, by any definition, a quantum leap forward in the treatment of this disease.
In Colorado, cases of melanoma are diagnosed at one of the fastest rates in the nation. According to the Centers for Disease Control, only 12 states have higher rates for this deadly form of cancer.
There are no data to explain why Colorado ranks as high as it does, Pacheco says. It could be the state’s temperate climate or the outdoor recreation that keeps residents in the sun. It could also be the altitude, Pacheco says. But everyone who goes outside in Colorado is a potential victim.
“I thought I was immune,” said Englewood Police Officer Leticia Castillo. But four years ago, that mindset came to an end. When getting a facial, her aesthetician noticed a spot on her nose and shared her concern with Castillo who, in a matter of days, scheduled a doctor’s visit.
“She (the doctor) pretty much knew right away,” Castillo says. “The skin was raised, the texture was different. They took care of it right away.” But, not long ago, the spot returned and Castillo was again back at her doctor. The spot was removed once again, along with two more suspicious moles that had recently appeared. Castillo’s doctor is confident that the procedures have arrested the growth.
But, today the veteran Englewood cop is judicious about using a good sunscreen. “I use SPF 50,” Castillo says. SPF is the sun protection factor that tells how long the application will work in preventing sunburn. An SPF of 15 will protect against sunburn for 150 minutes. Because Castillo’s work often keeps her in direct sunlight, her SPF 50 not only protects against sunburn but also provides an extra degree of confidence.
Dr. Pacheco says heredity may play a role in melanoma. In Castillo’s case, her mother had been treated years before for melanoma. Pacheco also suggests paying special attention to moles, beauty marks, for changes in shape and color.
Dr. Pacheco also urges anyone looking for a “healthy tan” look, to rethink that mindset. Tanning beds, she says without a moment’s hesitation, “should be totally avoided.” Pacheco says tanning booths shine a “fortified” dose of sunlight that is simply dangerous. Tanning booths expose a person to both UVA and UVB light — both potentially dangerous to long term health.
Also, excessive tanning causes the skin to lose its elasticity earlier than it normally would. The results are premature aging and wrinkling of the skin.
Because most time spent in the sun occurs in the first twenty years of life, protecting children from sunburn is essential. Doctors say it is not enough to urge children to play in the cool of the shade or to rely on long sleeves, which only offer a protection factor of eight. A child should never play outside without a sunscreen of at least SPF of 30.
Also severe sunburn in childhood, “the kind that causes severe blistering,” Pacheco says, can result in melanoma many years later.
Not all suspicious spots result in a dire result. But, anything, including moles or beauty marks, should always be monitored especially as a person ages. On a routine visit to his doctor, La Voz Bilingüe accountant Jim Koucherik asked about what he thought was a bug bite or age spot on his arm. Something about it didn’t look right so the doctor ordered a biopsy. A few days later, the lab reported it was benign, harmless.
But, the time between the biopsy and the results did create a little anxiety. “I had worked in Leadville for 18 years, which is a higher altitude,” he said. He knew that altitude is often thought to contribute to skin cancer. The biopsy, even thought it was negative, did increase Koucherik’s awareness and respect for the disease.
“Today I try and wear an SPF 50 or so,” he says. It takes little time to apply, he says, but contributes immeasurably to peace of mind.