With the first drug for melanoma in 13 years, sun care is heating up. With age a risk factor for all skin cancer, Charmaine Gooden screens the news.
CANCER RISKS ARE on the rise for aging skin. The 45-plus population grew up at a time when suntanning was considered healthy. “Thirty years ago, a deep, dark Bain de Soleil was a sign of health and leisure, so it’s more likely that this group has accumulated sun damage,” explains Dr. Lisa Kellett (www.dlkonavenue.com). Skin cancer occurs gradually, often manifesting itself years after sun exposure. So, if you’ve made it to age 60 and haven’t seen a rogue mole yet, don’t think you’ve necessarily dodged a bullet.
Today, we’re generally well educated to the fact that there’s no such thing as a healthy tan; instead, a tan is a sign of skin damage and a risk of melanoma. The good news, says Kellett, is, “If a 60-year-old learns how to behave responsibly in the sun that’s going to help when they’re 80.”
Skin cancer, the uncontrolled growth of malignant skin cells, is by far the most common type of cancer in Canada – surprisingly, almost more that breast, ovarian, prostate and colon cancers combined. You are your own first responder to this crisis. Most skin cancers are detected during self-examination and, fortunately, 90 per cent can be cured if detected early enough. It only takes five minutes to look for any discolouration of the skin, a new mole or a change in the border, size, shape or colour of any existing mole, says Kellett. She suggests getting your dermatologist to have an overall look at your skin and your hairdresser or barber to check your scalp. Go to My Skin Check (www.myskincheck.ca), an online public health campaign from French skin-care company La Roche-Posay, where you can evaluate your personal sun risk, use the interactive mole checker to monitor your moles and get helpful tips on how to behave responsibly in the sun.
According to the Canadian Cancer Society (www.cancer.ca), one in seven Canadians will develop some form of the following skin cancers.
*A pre-cancerous spot is the most common and least dangerous kind of early skin cancer, says Kellett. It is typically scaly, red, doesn’t heal and hasn’t yet become invasive skin cancer. Treatment options are cryosurgery (freezing of the lesion with liquid nitrogen), surgery and topical creams that attack the cancer cells.
*Non-melanoma, the most common type of skin cancer, starts in the basal or squamous cells of the skin. Both basal (new cells made deep in the epidermis) and squamous (old cells that move toward the skin’s surface) cell cancers develop in the epidermis. Basal cell cancer often looks like a bump or little crater with a shiny or pearly surface. Squamous cell cancer, the less common of the two, is usually reddish and scaly. Fortunately, both are easily treatable when caught early. About 75,500 new cases of non-melanoma skin cancer were diagnosed in Canada in 2010. Treatment depends on the size and location f the tumour and the patient’s own health status. They include laser removal and surgery.
*About 5,300 new cases of malignant melanoma were diagnosed in Canada in 2010, and your risk increases with age. Malignant melanoma starts in the pigments cells and can spread to other parts of the body easily. Melanoma is treated surgically to entirely remove the cancerous cells. If the cancer has invaded deep into the skin, further treatments, such as more skin removal, surgical removal of nearly lymph nodes, chemotherapy and/or radiation, may be necessary. There are also reports of a promising new treatment: an immune-enhancing drug that uses the body’s defences to destroy advanced melanoma skin cancer cells gained regulatory approval in March of this year. The antibodies bind to specific immune system cells that seek and destroy virus-infected and cancerous cells. Cancer specialists say this is the first new drug for melanoma in 13 years and expect it to make a big difference for patients who faced limited treatment options and low chances of surviving until now.
FOODS THAT FIGHT CANCER
Several clinical and epidemiological studies have shown that nutrition may play a role in the incidence and progression of cancer, according to naturopathic doctor and author of Your Skin, Younger Alan Logan (www.drlogan.com). Skin cancer protection can be offered by a diet rich in:
*Colourful fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes, cherries and green leafy vegetables. They contain important quantities of antioxidants and phytochemicals that will protect your skin from harmful UV rays.
*Omega-3s. Inflammation-fighting essential polyunsaturated fatty acids are found in many types of fish and nuts, particularly walnuts. Researchers are actively investigating the mechanisms behind the ability of omega-3 fatty acids to reduce melanoma. These compounds search the body for potentially cancerous cells and help reverse some DNA defects early on.
*Culinary spices. Research confirms that some spices such as cinnamon and turmeric possess large quantities of anticancer compounds.
*Dark chocolate or cocoa. It has been shown that chocolate and cocoa make skin up to 25 per cent less sensitive to the sun.
*Teas and coffee. Research suggests that downing a cup or more of green tea a day may help prevent UV-induced skin cancer and DNA damage. Regular coffee consumption can reduce risk of non-melanoma skin cancer by up to 36 per cent.
*Red wine. The chemical resveratrol is a potent antioxidant shown to reduce UV-induced skin cell damage.
These foods and beverages offer internal sun protection, which will protect skin from further UV damage. “The SPF provided by foods – cocoa, fish oil, red wine, lycopene from tomatoes – is a little shy of an SPF of two,” says Logan. “Obviously, this does not allow us to ditch the sunscreen in favour of certain foods, some dark chocolate and a glass or two of red wine. The cumulative effects, however, are important, with an estimated 30 per cent lifetime reduction of skin cancer from an internal SPF of two. The human studies on internal SPF from food have typically lasted three months, although one study did show a more immediate effect of red wine consumption – within hours.”
REVERSING SUN DAMAGE
Over-the-counter products like vitamin C and retinol, a vitamin A derivative, have been proven to refine skin and help to reverse sun damage for a more attractive appearance says Kellett. Other medical treatments include chemical peels, laser resurfacing and intense pulsed light therapies to erase the ravages of the sun. You must also use a topical SPF 60 diligently to help prevent further skin damage. While sunscreens can offer protection if used correctly, none offer 100 per cent protection from UV rays. Prolonged exposure to the sun, even using a sunscreen, may still cause skin cancer.