Hello! My name is Bridget Flynn, I am a UMBC student interning with the Ulman Cancer Fund for the summer, and in high school my friends had a running joke that I must be part plant.
The joke wasn’t founded on my physical characteristics (I am neither leafy nor green), but rather on my habit of basking in sunlight wherever I could find it. The sense of well being I received from sunbathing was so strong that we decided photosynthesis must be involved somehow, and that became my excuse for dawdling by sunny windows or demanding to go outside during every halfway-decent lunch period.
Getting a tan wasn’t the point for me, but of course I never wore sunscreen either. I figured I didn’t really need it unless I was at the beach. Skin cancer? That was something that happened to old people. Cancer, in general, was something that happened to old people, or sometimes little kids – not to someone my age. Definitely not to me.
You can probably guess where this is going: it did happen to me. In September of 2008, two weeks into my sophomore year of college, I was diagnosed with Stage III Ewing sarcoma, originating in my kidney. All my feelings of invulnerability evaporated in the moments of a single CAT scan, and when I went back to school after my treatment it drove me crazy to see people smoking and sunbathing as if their bodies could never break down.
Now, my positions as president of UMBC's Colleges Against Cancer chapter and as an intern here at the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults have given me an opportunity to educate my peers (and anyone who will listen) about steps they can take to prevent and detect cancer.
I’m sure anyone reading this blog already has a better-than-average understanding of the dangers of melanoma, the importance of sunscreen, and the vulnerability of anyone, young or old, to this disease. However, in the course of research I’ve been doing as part of my internship I’ve found some really interesting information, and I wanted to share it with you:
Melanoma and Sunscreen: An Overview
Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer, accounting for more than 75% of skin cancer deaths. Although it is completely curable if caught early, once it has spread beyond the skin it is extremely difficult to treat.
Melanoma is also the second most common form of cancer for young adults aged 15-29 years old, and Doug Ulman, the founder of the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, is a two-time melanoma survivor. The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults is deeply committed to educating people about skin cancer prevention and has a “Ban the Burn” curriculum for use in high schools.
The American Cancer Society estimates that the lifetime risk for getting melanoma is 1 in 50 for fair-skinned people.
Most people know that exposure to UV radiation is the biggest risk factor for developing melanoma, and will put on sunscreen when they head to the beach. However, UV exposure happens every day, and the effects can be significant. A recent study by the St. Louis University School of Medicine found that of the malignant melanomas treated in the university’s skin cancer unit, 76% were on the left side of the body, most likely from sun exposure while driving.
The St. Louis University study is a sobering reminder that sun protection needs to be a daily activity. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends wearing long-sleeved clothing when practical, and applying a sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher every day.
When choosing a sunscreen, here are some things to be aware of:
· Most sunscreens – even those labeled “broad-band” or “broad-spectrum” - do not adequately protect against UVA radiation, which doesn’t cause sunburns but contributes to the incidence of melanoma. To find a sunscreen that provides better UVA protection, check the ingredients label for titanium oxide, zinc oxide, avobenzone, or ecamsule.
· A sunscreen’s SPF, or sun protection factor, refers only to protection from UVB rays and not UVA. Also, an SPF of 30 does not offer twice the protection of an SPF of 15.
o SPF 15: filters 93% of UVB radiation.
o SPF 30: filters 97% of UVB radiation.
o SPF 50: filters 98% of UVB radiation.
· The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit public health group, identified several common sunscreen ingredients as hazardous in its 2010 Sunscreen Guide.
o Oxybenzone (also known as Benzophenone-3) is a potential hormone disruptor that can affect the nervous system and has been linked to cancer in some laboratory studies; it also releases DNA-damaging free radicals when exposed to sunlight. It should especially be avoided for children.
o Vitamin A (listed as retinol or retinyl palmitate) is added to 41% of sunscreens because of its antioxidant properties. However, a recent FDA study found that vitamin A actually breaks down in sunlight and produces more damaging radical oxygen particles. In that study, tumors and lesions developed up to 21% faster in mice coated with vitamin A cream.
· There is no sunscreen that offers 100% protection from UV radiation, and all sunscreens wear off; remember to apply liberally every two hours (or after swimming) and to seek shade during the peak sun hours of 10 AM to 2 PM.
Although I am more aware of the dangers of sunbathing now, I love it just as much as ever, and I have to confess that I’m probably going to be relying on sunscreen more than shade. However, I will definitely be spending more time reading the ingredients labels of those sunscreens until I find one that I feel comfortable with.
UCF Summer Intern and Ewing Sarcoma Seurvivor