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Brown column for Feb. 15, 2004

February seems an odd time to be thinking about the sun’s dangers, but I am wearing on my face a couple of reminders of what the sun can do. Toward the end of the week, a dermatologist will excise them, hopefully without any complications.

These reminders are basal cell carcinomas, not as frightening perhaps as the malignant melanoma that hit me like a brickbat three years ago, but certainly serious enough to raise my awareness level another notch.

I’ve learned that self-examinations are a good idea and that middle-aged and older men aren’t good about performing monthly skin self-examinations or regularly visiting a dermatologist. That means they’re less likely to detect melanoma in its early stages, when it is almost always curable through surgical removal alone.

My cells run amuck are most likely the consequence of what I did – or didn’t do – years ago. Simply put, I spent far too much time in the sun with little or no protection from its rays.

Of course I am not the only one who’s done that. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States.

During 2003, the American Cancer Society estimated, about 1 million new cases of basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma and about 54,200 cases of malignant melanoma would be diagnosed. The ACS expected that skin cancer would kill 9,800 Americans during the year.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, one of three new cancers is a skin cancer, and the vast majority of those are basal cell carcinomas. The foundation said that form of skin cancer affects 800,000 Americans each year. Squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common skin cancer, affects about 200,000 Americans a year.

The most serious form of skin cancer, melanoma, has increased more rapidly in the past 10 years than any other cancer, according to the foundation.

Scientists began suspecting an association between exposure to the sun and skin cancer as far back as the late 1800s, but many of us remained blissfully ignorant. When I was a kid, we knew that sunburn was best avoided simply because it hurt like crazy. We didn’t know that the burn – or even tanning – was planting the seeds of cancer that would sprout much later.

We know now that exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays appears to be the most important environmental factor in the development of skin cancer. We know that the American Medical Association says tanning in any form, including tanning beds or sun lamps, is a health hazard. Even slow tanning without burning can increase skin cancer risk.

We know it, but most of us don’t do anything about it, just as most smokers know about the danger of lung cancer. People who don’t smoke can get lung cancer, and people who don’t go out in the sun can get skin cancer, but the odds are a lot greater for smokers and sun lovers.

It seems to be just too difficult to take some far off consequence seriously, especially when we are young and imagine ourselves bulletproof.

And most people receive 80 percent of their exposure to the sun by the time they’re 18, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

That puts a lot of responsibility on adults to see that their children receive sun protection.

It’s a responsibility that they’re not meeting very well. The CDC found that approximately 43 percent of white children under age 12 had at least one sunburn during the past year.

I react to a sign for a tanning salon the way Carrie Nation must have reacted to a saloon. I’d love to grab my hatchet and whack all those tanning beds to bits. When I hear young people talk about “laying out,” I feel the urge to warn them. I don’t though. There’s no merit in becoming a common scold.

It’s February, but we’re all eager for spring and thinking about the outdoor activity that the season brings. Perhaps it is not too soon to think about protecting ourselves and our children from the sun while we’re enjoying it.

Bill Brown can be contacted at 377 Quail Hollow Drive, Dadeville AL 36853 or by e-mail at williambrown1@charter.net

(c)2004 William B. Brown