Trips to a mountain cabin near Kamas, Utah were a welcome getaway for Peggy Weight in the summer.
The Salt Lake County woman loved to sit out in the sun on a cot in pursuit of the perfect tan. Her routine brought an unwelcome diagnosis: Skin cancer.
“I started as a middle-aged lady having problems with my legs,” said Weight, now 92. She beat cancer, but today is an advocate for people to be aware of how soaking up the sun as a younger person can create health hazards later in life.
Her physician, C. David Hansen, agrees. More than 40 percent of dermatology patients nationwide are over the age of 60, and the risk for skin cancer increases with age, said Hansen, who practices at University of Utah Health Care’s dermatology clinic in Murray. “As we age we become much more susceptible to skin cancer, and sun- related problems,” he said.
The trend is especially prevalent in Utah, which is home to the highest rates of melanoma in the nation.
Melanoma is growing at a faster rate than other skin cancers, said Glen Bowen, M.D., a dermatologist specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute. He said Utah has a number of factors that contribute to an increased risk for people living in the Beehive State.
"Utah’s high rate of skin cancer is due to a combination of factors: the state’s high altitude where there is less ozone filtration of ultraviolet light, a southern latitude (Salt Lake City is approximately the same latitude as Rome, Italy), and a population comprised of a high percentage of Caucasians. The people who were genetically built to live in Utah were the Paiute Indians who have a high amount of pigment in their skin that protects them from ultraviolet light," he said.
What can people do to prevent skin cancer caused by the sun? Precautionary measures include wearing sunscreen —and also covering up with clothes, he noted.
While wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt and wide brimmed hat could be tricky while enjoying a popular summer activity like a water park, visiting that park in the morning or early evening —times when the sun is not at its peak —can help curb sun exposure to some degree.
Think you’ve got the knowledge to keep yourself safe in the sun? Take University of Utah Health Care’s Summer Sun Exposure Quiz first to make sure.
How to choose the right sunscreen
When it comes to sunscreen, you can judge the protectiveness of a sunscreen against UVB rays according to its sun protection factor (SPF). For instance, if your skin usually burns after 10 minutes, a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 extends this to 2.5 hours (10 minutes multiplied by the "15" protection factor = 150 minutes).
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Melinda Rogers is a communications specialist at University of Utah Health Care. She can be reached at Melinda.firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitters: @mrogers_utah.