As the days grow longer and sun slightly stronger, Maine lobstermen are beginning to assess their gear and get ready for another season on the water. They know that long days at sea will have an effect on their shoulders and their knees but they might not consider the harm that constant exposure to the sun will have on their skin and eyes. Being prepared for the season also means being prepared to prevent skin cancer.
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Skin cancer comes in three forms: basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas and melanoma. The first two are curable, if costly, to treat. Melanoma, however, is more dangerous and causes the most deaths.
These cancers are caused by the electromagnetic energy of sun, expressed as ultraviolet (UV) waves. There are three types of UV rays that strike the earth: UVA, UVB and UVC. The one to worry about is UVA. The particular wavelength of UVA allows it to reach deep into human skin and mess with the DNA of skin cells. UVB rays are mostly absorbed by the earth’s ozone layer, although those that get through can also cause DNA damage. UVC rays are very deadly but are completely absorbed by the ozone layer (whew!). Not only can UV rays cause skin cancer, they also contribute to the creation of eye cataracts.
For decades we have considered a tan a sign of health. After all, to get that warm brown color, one presumably is spending lots of time outside, which leads to good health, right? Actually, turning brown or red from sunburn is a sign that the skin has been damaged. Research shows that those who use tanning beds before age 35 increase their risk for melanoma by 75%. Skin cells produce more of a pigment called melanin when hit by UV energy. Melanin absorbs UV radiation to prevent the radiation from damaging the cells underneath. So when your skin turns brown, it’s a sign that the cells are taking a whack from all those UV rays.
The sun’s UV rays can harm your skin on cloudy or hazy days, as well as bright and sunny days. The rays also reflect off water, sand, and snow, so protection is important in both the winter and summer. In the northern hemisphere UV rays are strongest during late spring and early summer.
Anyone can get skin cancer, but certain traits put you at greater risk:
- A lighter natural skin color.
- Skin that burns, freckles, reddens easily, or becomes painful in the sun.
- Blue or green eyes.
- Blond or red hair.
- Certain types and a large number of moles.
- A family history of skin cancer.
The most common sign of skin cancer is a change in your skin. It could be a new growth, a sore that doesn’t heal, or a change in a mole. A simple way to remember the signs of melanoma is to remember ABCDE:
- “A” stands for asymmetrical. Does the mole or spot have an irregular shape with two parts that look very different?
- “B” stands for border. Is the border irregular or jagged?
- “C” is for color. Is the color uneven?
- “D” is for diameter. Is the mole or spot larger than the size of a pea?
- “E” is for evolving. Has the mole or spot changed during the past few weeks or months?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 2,135 new cases of skin melanomas in Maine from 2011 to 2015; 263 people died of the disease during that time.
It’s easy to forget to bring the sun block and a hat when first starting out in the spring. But, as these statistics show, making sure to protect yourself from the sun’s rays is crucial to protecting yourself against the harmful effects of spending hours on the water every day.