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Want Melanoma? Get a Tan

Researchers Predict Melanoma Will Top Common Cancer List
WebMD Health News

Feb. 9, 2004 (Washington) -- It's rapidly climbing the charts, but this is one list you don't ever want to top: malignant melanoma. The most serious form of skin cancer is moving up through the ranks of the most common forms of cancer in the U.S., moving from the No. 6 slot in 1997, to a projected No. 1 by the year 2022, researchers predict.

"Melanoma is a social disease," says Mark F. Naylor, MD, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center in Oklahoma City, speaking at a meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology here.

What Naylor means is that, as every advertising executive knows, sex sells, and popular culture -- TV commercials, magazine ads, reality shows, and programs such as "Baywatch" and "The OC" -- exert social pressure on us to strive for that "healthy glow" by glorifying tanned and toned bodies.

But the not-so-subtle message that going for the bronze can heighten your sex appeal has potentially deadly consequences: "While sunburn is the most efficient way to develop melanoma, chronic tanning is second best," Naylor says.

Melanoma is one of the most common forms of skin cancer. It is the deadliest type because it spreads easily to other parts of the body. It occurs in the cells that produce the pigments that give skin its natural color. When these skin cells are repeatedly damaged by sunburn, or through long-term exposure to ultraviolet rays in sunlight, this contributes to the risk of melanoma developing in some people. Melanoma generally begins in the skin, but can spread to other organs and bones through the blood or the lymph system.

One of the biggest risk factors for melanoma is chronic exposure to ultraviolet rays, primarily through tanning under the sun or in a tanning bed. Although sunscreens with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or greater are effective for protecting exposed skin from damaging UV rays, many people mistakenly believe they can slather on the sunscreen and then lie lizard-like on the sand, patio, or poolside to get a gradual gentle tan. "There is no safe way to tan. How many times do we have to say this? It increases melanoma risk absolutely," Naylor says.

Prevention Is Key

Faced with damning evidence about increased melanoma risk, tanning-bed advocates have switched to a new marketing ploy, touting the theoretical health benefits of increased vitamin D exposure for preventing osteoporosis and some forms of cancer. "That's now the excuse of choice for going to tanning parlors," Naylor comments. Typical is a fitness center in British Columbia, Canada that offers "unlimited tanning" for a fixed monthly fee: "Our natural tanning process provides protection against burning," the center's web site copy promises.

"All I can say about that is that if vitamin D really does that, then the logical thing is to supplement it in the diet," Naylor explains.

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