HealthView column: Avoiding high country sun damage
It’s been a hot summer here in the Roaring Fork Valley. At 5,761 feet high, Glenwood Springs is over a mile closer to the sun than our counterparts on the coast, and that means an increased chance for skin damage from the sun.
The sun has less atmosphere to travel through at higher elevations — for every 1,000 feet of elevation gained, individuals will experience an 8-10 percent increase in ultraviolet intensity. That means at the elevation of Glenwood Springs, residents are exposed to as much as 57 percent more sun than at the same latitude at sea level.
It’s safe to say that most residents in the Roaring Fork Valley have some degree of sun damage. Intense sun combined with high altitude is a recipe for melanoma, or skin cancer. Rates of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, have risen sharply in women over the past 25 years. Non-melanoma skin cancer remains the most common cancer in the United States.
The Calaway•Young Cancer Center at Valley View sees plenty of patients with varying degrees of sun damage. The number of patients diagnosed with melanoma have remained stable since doubling between 2015 and 2016. In 2017, the center treated 24 patients with melanoma, most of whom were in Stage 1. Males are diagnosed at higher rates than females and data provided by the center shows a higher number of diagnoses between ages 50 and 59.
Dr. Kelly Thomas of Glenwood Medical Associates is a dermatologist with a front-line perspective on sun damage in the high country. She recommends using a sunscreen that has at least an SPF 30 or higher, is water resistant, and provides broad spectrum coverage. “Recent studies have shown that SPF 100 is better than SPF 50,” she says. “Even better, wear sun protective clothing such as lightweight long-sleeve shirts.”
Unfortunately, sunscreen and covering up now won’t fix earlier damage, and skin cancer can still develop even with the utmost attention given to sun protection. Once diagnosed, surgical removal is considered the mainstay of treatment. Radiation can also be used as an alternative treatment for some patients.
“A patient who has been diagnosed with skin cancer often has radiotherapy as an option, or in addition to surgery,” says Dr. Peter Rossi, a radiation oncologist who joined the Calaway•Young Cancer Center from Emory University last year.
“Sometimes patients aren’t ideal for surgery or need a multidisciplinary approach,” says Dr. Rossi. “Other times, after surgery, the characteristics of the tumor may suggest a high likelihood of recurrence, and radiation may reduce that risk.”
Dr. David Marcus, a radiation oncologist at the cancer center since 2014, works with patients along with other providers such as dermatologists, oncologic surgeons and plastic surgeons to provide the most appropriate options for patients for whom surgery may not be the best option.
“There is really a need to be thoughtful about the location, the size, and other characteristics of the tumor prior to deciding on a course of treatment,” he says. “There are many situations, such as a skin cancer on a cosmetically sensitive area of the face, or if there is a high risk of recurrence after treatment, or there is a chance it could spread, radiation might be an appropriate choice.” Dr. Peter Rossi, a fellow radiation oncologist, agrees. “One treatment may offer better cosmetics, or alternatively, convenience than the other, and we need to balance these variables.”
Of course, nothing compares to the power of prevention. Nothing can reverse the damage already caused by the sun, but doing small things like wearing protective clothing and sunscreen are all easy things one can do to prevent further damage. It’s also important to protect children from the sun. Once damage has occurred, it cannot be undone.
“Quality skincare typically includes vitamin A, vitamin C, exfoliant and a brightening agent,” says Dr. Jennifer Butterfield of Mount Sopris Plastic Surgery Center. “Skincare is like a marathon, you don’t get to the end quickly — it’s a commitment.”
The best thing one can do to avoid sun damage to the skin and potential skin cancer is to avoid sunburns. Prevent sunburns this summer using the following recommendations:
• Apply sunscreen generously prior to going outside, even in cloudy weather
• Use enough sunscreen to coat your skin thoroughly
• Apply sunscreen to all bare skin
• Reapply sunscreen every two hours to remain protective
• Don’t rely on sunscreen alone — use a lip balm with SPF, a hat with a wide brim, sunglasses with UV protection, and sun-protective clothing for added protection
No sunscreen will provide 100 percent protection from the sun, but by taking precautions and taking the time to apply — and reapply — sunscreen properly, you can greatly reduce your chances for sunburns and skin damage that can develop into skin cancer.
Ann Wilcox is the executive director of the Calaway•Young Cancer Center at Valley View. This article was provided by Valley View. For more information, visit vvh.org.
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