Skin cancer is on the rise in Canada, dramatically so. And we’re emerging from a particularly brutal winter so it can be hard to believe that the sun is our enemy. I think Canadians tend to not pay attention to skin cancer and sun because much of our year is so dark and cold. When I was cycling in Australia I was struck by the absence of sleeveless cycling jerseys. No one wore them. Not just because of silly cycling fashion rules either. They often wore full sleeve jerseys in the summer and/or white arm covers that protect you from the sun.
Here’s a blog post on arm coolers, as they’re called. They are designed for use in extreme heat and sun and have a high SPF and are supposed to help keep your arms cool. The post just mentioned reviews several brands but I haven’t seen them at all out on the road in Canada.
In Australia it wasn’t a joking matter. In pretty much every group of cyclists I met, there was someone being treated for skin cancer. (On the beach in Australia I was struck by two camps, the little children dressed in full length top and bottom bathing suits that looked kind of “hazmat” like, with hats, always with hats, and the older people, both men and women, in tiny teeny speedo style suits.)
Now here in cold, dark Canada I have a few friends with cancer and the norms are starting to change.
The Canadian bad news gets worse because it’s melanoma that’s on the rise here. That’s the kind of cancer that kills. See the Globe and Mail piece on the spike in deaths.
Skin cancer, one of the most preventable forms of the disease, is also one of the fastest-rising in this country, according to a new report from the Canadian Cancer Society that notes the death rate for all cancers combined continues to fall for most age groups.
“Melanoma is certainly increasing more than nearly all other cancers,” said Frances Wright, the head of breast and melanoma surgery at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. “They [rates] are increasing rapidly and it’s probably related to behaviour, related to lack of sun protection.”
When it comes to malignant melanoma – the type of skin cancer that is likelier to spread and kill – the rate of new cases has climbed significantly over the past 25 years. So has the melanoma death rate. Only lung cancer deaths in women and liver cancer deaths in men have increased at a faster pace, according to Canadian Cancer Statistics 2014, the annual compendium of cancer figures and projections published by the Canadian Cancer Society, Statistics Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
The report, released Wednesday, estimates 6,500 new cases of malignant melanoma will be diagnosed this year, with 1,050 expected to die from the disease.
I’ve been aware of the risk of skin cancer for a long time. Here at the B-F household we had our wake up call early. My partner Jeff had some pre-cancerous lesions on his hands in his twenties from years of sailboat racing. He was told to wear a hat and sunscreen at all times and signed me up for that plan along the way. Later we had some incredibly fair skinned children, of the sort who burned after minutes in the sun. We bought them full body bathing suits and big hats too.
An aside: This why whenever Tracy mentions nude vacations as an antidote to body image woes and as fun in their own right, my first thought goes to buckets of sunscreen. I rarely sit on the beach, even with all my clothes on! And then I think about a forested nude holiday, hiking in the woods maybe, and then I think about mosquitoes and tics. The fact is I’m happy with nudity and I love the outdoors but for me, I don’t see the two mixing. The World Naked Bike Ride isn’t for me.
But still, even after I adapted to the ways of the sun avoiders, I had some false beliefs about tanning.
I once had an argument with my thesis supervisor in the Philosophy department lounge over whether it was okay to go out in the sun for short period of time once you were tanned, and if you didn’t burn. He insisted that it was never okay and that a tan was just evidence of sun damage. One should never feel good about having tanned. He liked to argue, he was very good at arguing, he was married to a medical professional, and he directed me to Cancer Society resources.
Of course he was right.
The Centre for Disease Control says that “tanning does not protect against sunburn. In fact, a tan only provides a sun protection factor (SPF) of about 3 (CDC recommends sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15.), so a tan does not provide enough protection against the sun. The important thing to remember is that a tan is a response to injury: skin cells respond to damage from UV rays by producing more pigment.”
What about vitamin D? I rely on the Canadian Cancer Society for advice. (This is an area where paying attention to the credibility of online sources is particularly important as many are funded by the indoor tanning industry.) The cancer society says our vitamin D needs are easily met with a few minutes of indirect sunlight a day and that tanning is never recommended. Their slogan is “a little sun goes a long way” and they recommend Vitamin D supplements–never artificial tanning–in the winter.
Cyclists joke lots about our tan lines. I confess I use a lot of sunscreen (on my face year round, in fact) but I also use fake tanning lotion to avoid the pale legs thing. I feel bad about that as it perpetuates the summer tan norm but I can’t shake my dislike of my legs without.
Bicycling Magazine warns that cyclists shouldn’t be proud of our tan lines. (I think we think of it as evidence of how much we’ve been riding but surely our Garmins and Strava times are better things to be proud of.) See How to Prevent and Recognize Skin Cancer Crisp tan lines shouldn’t be a badge of honor. Here’s why—and how to shield yourself from the sun’s harmful rays.
In the last three decades, more people have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined, according to data from the Skin Cancer Foundation. And between 2000 and 2009, cases of melanoma (the deadliest form of the disease) rose steadily by almost 2 percent a year. It’s also the most common type of cancer in people ages 25 to 29.
Numerous studies have shown that regular exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun leads to an increased risk of melanoma and that outdoor endurance athletes are particularly susceptible to skin cancers. While there is little research on cyclists specifically, we are clearly vulnerable given the sheer amount of time they spend outside, says Prentice Steffen, MD, physician for Team Garmin-Sharp. One study published in the journal Dermatology found that during eight stages of the Tour de Suisse, riders were exposed to levels of harmful UV radiation that were 30 times more than recommended limits. Several factors compound the risk, say experts, including sweat, which increases the skin’s sensitivity to UV radiation.
Less worrisome but just as sobering, a staggering 90 percent of skin changes—like the fine lines and wrinkles that we attribute to just getting older—are caused by the sun.
I can attest to the age point. In visiting Australia and New Zealand I was constantly mistaken for a much younger person. And judging from the condition of the skin around me and the ages of my friends there, I don’t think they were joking. That too has prompted me to keep slathering on sunscreen and wearing nerdy sun hats. When prudence and vanity point in the same direction, it’s an easy choice. I might even order arm coolers this year.