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Surgeon General issues new warning on sun exposure

July 30, 2014

When it comes to the evils of sunbathing in the outdoor sun, or relaxing in an indoor tanning bed – the news just got more concerning for doctors.

The acting U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Boris D. Lushniak, warned against these practices in a report released Tuesday, July 29, that cites an alarming 200 percent jump in deadly melanoma cases since 1973.

"This information just announced from the surgeon general’s office is as important as the smoking message that came out of the office back in the 1960s," said Dr. Wilson Mertens, vice president and medical director, Cancer Services, Baystate Medical Center. "But, there is good news among the concerning statistics. While some 9,000 people die each year from melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, many skin cancers can be prevented."

Tanning Bed Dangers

And it’s not just the sun worshippers that the surgeon general is concerned about.

According to the acting surgeon general’s written introduction in a Call To Action from the office about skin cancer and melanoma, “Each day, thousands of teens are exposing themselves, unprotected, to harmful UV radiation from tanning beds, but only ten states currently have laws in place to prevent this practice for youth younger than age 18 years.”

"We have good data today to support the fact that people, especially the younger set, should avoid tanning beds," Dr. Mertens said.

The Baystate cancer expert said doctors are "definitely seeing an increase in skin cancer at the hospital and all share a concern over the many melanomas now being diagnosed."

"Much of the risk for deadly skin cancers in later life falls among those youngsters who are now being overexposed to the sun and who use tanning booths," Dr. Mertens said.

Already, many cases of melanoma are being detected in much younger patients than ever before.

Protecting your skin

Dr. Mertens and the Skin Cancer Foundation gave tips for protecting yourself and those you love from the sun’s damaging rays:

  • Seek the shade, especially between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when UV light is most intense. Do not allow yourself to get a sun burn by covering up with clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.
  • Use a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day. For extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Apply 1 oz. or 2 tablespoons of sunscreen to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours or immediately after swimming or excessive sweating.
  • Keep newborns out of the sun and use sunscreen only on those over the age of six months.

"Remember, using sunscreen is not a license to sit in the sun for much of the day," Dr. Mertens said.

Fighting melanoma

Surgery – the main treatment for most cases of melanoma – can often cure early-stage cancers before they metastasize and decrease the likelihood of a cure.

According to oncologist Dr. John McCann from the Baystate Regional Cancer Program, it is an "exciting time" for doctors and their patients in the treatment of melanoma.

"Today we have newer treatments to help improve the survival rate for those with advanced metastatic melanoma. We can look for specific genetic abnormalities and there are now pills available that can benefit those patients with certain mutations in the melanoma cell. We also have medicines that can activate the immune system to attack the melanoma cells," Dr. McCann said.