More and more professional athletes are realizing how the dangerous effects from the sun can disrupt their game. From baseball to hockey, running to skiing, skin cancer is leaving its mark on athletes in a range of sports. To spread awareness and help strike out skin cancer, the most common form of cancer in the United States, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) is urging athletes to Be Sun Smart.
“Thousands of athletes, both professional and amateur, are at high risk for developing skin cancer,” warns dermatologist Brian B. Adams, MD, MPH, FAAD, and chairperson of the AAD’s Sports Committee. “Outdoor athletes face double jeopardy because perspiring exacerbates their risk.”
Perspiration on the skin lowers the minimal erythema dose, the lowest ultraviolet (UV) light exposure needed to turn the skin barely pink. "You've already set yourself up for trouble if you are not using sunscreen when outdoors participating in sports," commented Dr. Adams. "When you perspire, you are even more susceptible to a burn, and with continued exposure, to wrinkles, age spots and maybe even skin cancer.”
Skin cancer has left its mark on runner Deena Kastor, one of America's top distance runners and an Olympic bronze medalist in the marathon. "I have 25 external stitches for basal cell carcinoma and early stages of melanoma," said Kastor. “I also have six internal stitches to tie off blood vessels the doctor cut through because the cancer runs deep."
Kastor encourages the public to take the necessary steps to prevent skin cancer. “I can only emphasize that it is never one thing that causes skin cancer,” said Kastor. “Maintaining healthy skin is a combination of using sunscreen, wearing clothing and hats that cover you in the sun, limiting exposure to the midday sun, eating foods high in anti-oxidants and visiting the dermatologist regularly.”
The AAD recommends seeking shade from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., which according to Dr. Adams is, "exactly the time when most teams are outside practicing, from soccer players to long-distance runners to tennis players. These athletes are getting an enormous amount of exposure to UV light and it’s important that they follow some sun-safety precautions, including wearing sunscreen and protective clothes.”
Skin cancer also occurs in athletes who do not compete in the sun. During training-camp physicals in 2002, National Hockey League player Mark Cullen's health took a negative turn. His doctor detected a suspicious mole under his arm and it was discovered to be melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.
"It was a shock," Cullen said. "Anytime you hear the word 'cancer', especially feeling that I was a young, healthy person, I was shocked. It was a scary time in my life and while I'm glad to have gone through it, I'm glad to be healthy right now."
It took three separate surgeries to remove Cullen’s growth, surrounding lymph nodes, and some skin. Luckily, Cullen did not have to undergo chemotherapy or radiation, as he initially believed. Almost three years later and with regular six-month checkups, Cullen is cancer-free.
"The skin cancer diagnosis helped me prioritize my life in general," Cullen said, "and made me realize what was important to me -- to take a step back and look at your life and where you're headed right now because you never know how long you're going to get."
More than 1 million new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year and one American dies of melanoma almost every hour (every 65 minutes). Of these cases, more than 108,000 are melanoma, a cancer that claims nearly 8,000 lives annually.
Dermatologists encourage all athletes to Be Sun Smart since sun exposure is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer. Here’s how to do it:
- Generously apply sunscreen to all exposed skin using a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 15 that provides broad-spectrum protection from both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. Re-apply every two hours, even on cloudy days, and after swimming or sweating. Look for the AAD SEAL OF RECOGNITIO on products that meet these criteria.
- Wear protective clothing, such as a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, where possible.
- Seek shade when appropriate, remembering that the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Use extra caution near water, snow and sand as they reflect the damaging rays of the sun which can increase your chance of sunburn.
- Protect children from sun exposure by applying sunscreen.
- Get vitamin D safely through a healthy diet that includes vitamin supplements. Don’t seek the sun.
- Avoid tanning beds. Ultraviolet light from the sun and tanning beds can cause skin cancer and wrinkling. If you want to look like you’ve been in the sun, consider using a sunless self-tanning product, but continue to use sunscreen with it.
- Check your birthday suit on your birthday. If you notice anything changing, growing, or bleeding on your skin, see a dermatologist. Skin cancer is very treatable when caught early.
For more information about skin cancer or the AAD’s sun-safety sports programs, please visit www.aad.org.