Those bluebird days on the mountain, the languid afternoons on a raft, the hours spent on bikes or hiking peaks. It’s why we live (or visit) here. But all that time under the blaze of bright sun takes its toll on our skin: there’s more skin cancer here in the Rocky Mountains. Additionally, it takes much less time to start to sunburn, aka start damaging the skin, here.
According to Dr. Karen Nern, dermatologist and owner of Vail Dermatology, one in five gets skin cancer in Colorado; the rate of melanoma is one in 35. These rates are higher than the average — because of the altitude and because we’re outside so much of the time.
She refers to a study conducted by Dr. Daryl Regal, a dermatologist out of New York. He looked at how quickly a sunburn can happen in various locations. In New York, it takes about 25 minutes, in Orlando it’s 15 minutes, in Vail at the top of Chair 4, it takes a mere 6 minutes. That’s nothing! Staying out of the sun isn’t really an option for our active lifestyles. But protection from the sun is a must to stay skin cancer free. Start protecting the skin early so not only does it become a habit, but it stays young looking and, more importantly, cancer free.
Obviously, start off with sun-protecting clothing. Begin protecting children when they are young so they become accustomed to covering up with rash guards and large hats. Sunscreen should be as habitual as brushing your teeth. Put it on every morning. We’re lucky enough to get tons of UV light every day; so we need to protect our skin every day. If you’re outside reapply every two hours. For instance, try a powder sunscreen that is easy to reapply and can be put in a bike jersey or ski pants pocket.
“We have powder sunscreen to put on with a brush, doesn’t freeze,” Dr. Nern says. “It doesn’t melt, you don’t have to take your gloves off.” But perhaps her best-kept accessory secret is to wear a face mask while skiing. Using sunscreen with zinc or titanium is also recommended; non-chemical materials work more effectively because they act like a reflector to the bright mountain light and are a physical barrier to the sun. As for SPF ratings? Bigger, or higher, is better. Actually, there was a a study that was funded by Neutrogena right here in Vail. It was a double blind study; skiers slathered SPF 50 on one side of their face and SPF 100 on the other. Thanks to the strange tan lines, the SPF 100 was clearly a better option. Most everyone probably knows the various types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. What’s the difference? “Basal tends to feel and act like a pimple that won’t go away, or a red patch that stays. Squamous can be a real tender bump that won’t go away, on sun-exposed area,” Dr. Nern explains. Then there’s pre-cancer spots. “Pre-cancer pink spots that feel gritty. [Those] turn in to basal or Squamous.”
Melanoma can happen in an existing mole or it can start on its own, which is why it’s important to start with regular skin screenings and keep an eye on any moles you have. This gives a baseline for future visits. If skin cancer was detected (and removed) earlier, plan on a dermatologist visit every six months. Fifteen to twenty minutes is all it takes as the doctor is extremely thorough, combing through hair and looking between toes.
“I’m amazed how many times I find a skin cancer,” shares Dr. Nern. Screenings should begin at home. “Those things you look for with melanoma — they are typically brown or black. They are usually growing or changing with an irregular border.”
If only there were a way to turn back time — to choose not to use a tanning bed, to use sunscreen instead of baby oil, to wear a hat at all times. Well, we know time travel isn’t an option but there are plenty of ways to heal the skin, insists the doctor.
Start today. There are some pills that help stave off sun-related cancer. Dr. Nern stays up- to-date and is able to reference a variety of studies to support how to avoid skin cancer. An Australian study showed that taking niacinamyde, otherwise known as vitamin B3, helps reduce the risk of skin cancer by a whopping 30 percent. So, she recommends taking 500 mg twice per day. Then there’s heliocare, a fern extract that also prevents sunburn. Take that daily too.
Other treatments include excision, a scraping procedure (electrodessication), curettage, topical creams and the blue light prevention strategy. “It’s a full-face treatment, where we put a medicine on the skin, called Amyluze, let it sit for 90 minutes then put the patient in front of a big blue light. The light activates the medicine and kills the precancerous cells. It’s for people who have found spots and want to move ahead.”
There are chemical peels, resurfacing, laser peels… so many options to keep us younger looking and cancer free. Prevention is the best strategy, including the use of sunscreen starting at a young age and for that reason, Dr. Nern recently launched The Sun Bus, an interactive bus that will visit schools and events to provide education and offer free skin cancer screenings by volunteer dermatologists.
Remember how in the ’70s kids badgered their parents to quit smoking? The Sun Bus, sponsored by Alta MD sunscreen, (www. thesunbus.org) will be a catalyst to remind children to wear sunscreen and help their parents remember too.
Bottom line, says Dr. Nern, “Most skin cancers can be prevented. If caught early they are highly curable. The word melanoma is a very scary word — we catch them so early in our patient population, it’s a really low risk of significant complications.” So, grab a hat, layer on the sunscreen and enjoy one of our 300 sunny days.