After a long, sun-starved winter and a soggy spring, many Puget Sounders might crave some time in the sun.
That’s what will make this weekend the most dangerous time of the year for cancer.
“It’s been cloudy for some time and then it’s a nice, warm, sunny day,” said Dr. June Kim, a University Place dermatologist. “People want to take advantage of that nice sunny day.”
That leads to sun burns and those can lead to skin cancer.
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Washington is eighth in the nation for invasive melanomas of the skin, according to the National Cancer Institute. Puget Sound has 13 percent more diagnoses of that deadliest form of skin cancer than other parts of the state.
Statewide, incidence rates for newly diagnosed melanomas have been increasing by 2 percent each year since 2000, according to data from the Washington State Cancer Registry.
Washington’s high rates aren’t fully understood but one reason might be the state’s weather.
“People think that if it’s a cloudy day, they’re safe,” Kim said. “There’re fewer people here willing to put on sunblock on a daily basis.”
It turns out that up to 80 percent of ultraviolet radiation, a cause of skin cancer, can penetrate those clouds and reach your skin.
Along with Washington, Oregon and Idaho lead the country in melanoma rates. Many Southern states, from Arizona to Alabama, have the lowest rates.
Kim attributes that counterintuitive reversal on culture and poorly informed assumptions.
“People in Arizona are used to the sun,” she said. “The first thing they do is put on sunblock.”
That’s a practice Kim would like Washingtonians to get in the habit of doing every day.
Kim, who has been practicing for more than a decade, sees more skin cancer in the form of basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma than melanomas.
“But definitely melanoma is the one we most worry about because it’s so dangerous,” she said.
In the United States, about 10,000 people die from melanomas annually, according to cancer.net. Another 2,000 die from basal cell and squamous cell cancers.
Skin cancer diagnosis and treatment have higher success rates compared with several other cancers.
Kim and and fellow dermatologist Maureen Mooney point to two main sources for skin cancer: The sun and indoor tanning beds.
“They’re all a source of ultraviolet radiation, which have a direct link to skin cancer,” Kim said. “Almost all of melanomas are related to ultraviolet radiation.”
“We know ultraviolet rays are carcinogenic,” Mooney said. “We know it causes skin cancer. Why would you expose yourself to something that is a known carcinogen?”
Tanning salons are popular with young women.
“When I see someone who is in their 20s (with skin cancer) I go, ‘So, how often did you use a tanning bed?’ They almost are always a tanning bed user, or former tanning bed user,” Kim said.
Mooney disputes the idea that tanning beds are safer than the sun.
“Anytime you tan, it’s your body’s defense mechanism to protect your skin,” she said.
The industry’s lobbying group, the American Suntanning Association, uses the tagline, “Tan Responsibly.” It takes the position that tanning beds can be used safely.
“There is no such thing as a healthy tan,” Mooney said.
“I see patients all the time who say who say, ‘I wish I knew when I was younger that I needed to stay out of the sun,’ ” Kim said.
She urges them to educate their children and grandchildren. And not to give up.
Many seek the sun to produce vitamin D.
“Studies have shown that, even if you use sunblock every single day, you cannot be vitamin D deficient,” Kim said.
There are other sources of the vitamin, from food to supplements. Milk, orange juice, cereals and sometimes mushrooms can be fortified with vitamin D. It naturally occurs in many fish, several green vegetables, cheese and eggs.
Broad spectrum sunscreen — which includes protection from long-wave ultraviolet rays (UVA) and short-wave rays (UVB) — is a must, the doctors said.
UVB causes sunburns; UVA is the aging ray.
“It’s the one that makes you look older, gives you wrinkles,” Kim said.
There are other factors beside the sun, she said, “but sun is a huge component.”
Both doctors said to use a sunscreen with a SPF level of 30 or higher.
“People usually don’t put on enough,” Mooney said. And if you’re out in the sun, it must be reapplied every two hours or immediately following a swim.
Kim urges people to check themselves for skin cancer monthly, just as they would for breast and testicular cancer.
And, she says, partners can check each other for changing moles or new growths.
“It’s hard to look at your back,” Kim said. “If you see a spot that’s growing, bleeding, not healing … you’re worried about it — those are reasons to see a dermatologist.”
Those who are fair, have a history of sunburns or skin cancer or who have family members with skin cancers should have a annual doctor’s exam.
Most melanomas do not occur from an existing mole.
“However, melanomas, when they start, they look like a mole,” Kim said.
The good news: As deadly as melanoma is, it’s very treatable if caught early. In stage I — it hasn’t spread to lymph nodes — it has a 98 percent cure rate. By stage III that rates drops to 18 percent.
Don’t Fry Day
What: Scavenger hunt and coloring activity for children and families to learn how animals protect themselves from the sun and how humans should as well.
Who: Washington State Department of Health
When: Friday, May 26
Where: Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park
Free skin cancer screening: aad.org/public/spot-skin-cancer/programs/screenings/find-a-screening
Daily UV index: epa.gov/sunsafety/uv-index-1#day1
UV index based avoidance strategies: epa.gov/sunsafety/uv-index-scale-1
The Weather Channel and other sources have UV index apps for smart phones.
ABCDE’s of Checking your Skin
Asymmetry (one half of the mole doesn’t match the other)
Color that is not uniform
Diameter greater than 6mm (about the size of a pencil eraser)
Evolving size, shape or color