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Skin Cancer Danger: Not Just in Summer

Snow on the ground doesn't mean you don't have to worry about sun exposure. Sunburns -- and skin cancer -- can happen even in winter months.
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WebMD Feature

I said goodbye to summer when I packed away my bikini for cold weather hibernation, only to fish it out weeks later for a trip to Australia, where the seasons are opposite what they are in the U.S. The fall and winter months here are seasons of spring and summer there.

Down under, I discovered a good number of people were wearing light long-sleeved shirts and hats at the beach -- not because they were shy of exposing their bodies, but because of a general awareness that the country has the highest skin cancer rate in the world.

One out of every two Aussies will develop non-melanoma skin cancer in their lifetime, accounting for about 80% of all new cancers diagnosed in the country each year, according to The Cancer Council Australia.

The alarming information was enough to motivate me to wear sunscreen during my outdoor ventures in Sydney. It turns out, however, that I also needed to be vigilant about protecting myself from too much ultraviolet (UV) exposure even when I got back home to the autumn leaves of New York. Experts say the danger of developing skin cancer can be just as significant in the U.S., even in the nippy seasons.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., making up more than half of all cancers here. More than 1 million Americans are diagnosed with the disease each year.

To help improve rates, American health officials are turning to some of the most successful sun protection campaigns produced in Australia. The effort, though, comes at a time when British researchers are questioning the effectiveness of sunscreen, long touted to help fight skin cancer.

There may be debate about sun block, but there is little disagreement about the importance of protecting oneself against too much UV light.

"The opportunity is there for people in the U.S. and Europe to learn from (Australia's) experience and to invest in prevention of skin cancer now," says Terry Slevin, director of education and research for the Cancer Foundation of Western Australia. "If not, (the Americans and Europeans) will pay for the lack of investment in the harvest of skin cancers that will be coming along the track in increasing numbers in 10, 15, and 20-year's time."

The Skinny of Vulnerability

Australia's experience with skin cancer does yield numerous lessons about risk factors for the ailment. In fact, some of these could apply to people in the U.S. and Europe, perhaps making more plausible a prediction of higher skin cancer rates in the future.

Skin cancer develops with cumulative overexposure to invisible UV radiation from the sun. When UV light penetrates the skin, it can damage skin cells and cause them to mutate over time. If these mutated cells aren't destroyed by the immune system, they could develop into skin cancer.

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