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Weekly Alibi Melanoma, Carcinoma ... Some Kind of a Noma

Welcome To Skin Cancer Season

By Mike Ratchett

Numbers can be frightening. And because I strive to be as morbid as possible, try this on for size: 40,300 new cases of skin cancer are expected to be diagnosed in 1997 according to Dr. Steven Padilla, M.D., a leading oncologist and crusader against the most life-threatening form of the disease, melanoma.

And there are other numbers to scare the skin off of you. By the year 2000, for instance, your individual lifetime risk of developing melanoma will increase to one in 75. Currently, the incidence of melanoma is increasing by 300 percent each year. Still, so many people--especially residents of the beautiful, sunny Southwest--insist on worshipping the Sun God this time of year without much regard to the fact that this god will almost certainly betray your faith unless you protect yourself.

The fact remains that, despite ubiquitous warnings and the availability of effective sunscreen, people disregard the facts. And that can be a fatal mistake. So before planning your next hike, trip to the lake or nude sunbathing session, I suggest you read on.

Malignant melanoma, although it accounts for only 5 percent of reported skin cancer cases, causes over 75 percent of skin cancer-related deaths--more than 7,300 of them per year in the United States alone. Here's how it works. You wake up early some Saturday morning, pack the cooler, hitch the boat to your excessively loud, jacked-up four-wheeler and head off to some big pool of water in the middle of the desert. Once there, you remove most of your clothing, launch the boat and begin to drink as much beer as possible in the shortest amount of time. Next, you take a little nap while someone almost as drunk as you drives the boat. When you wake up, you're quite literally fried. Someone says something like, "Ha! You should have worn sunscreen," while you shrug painfully and open another beer. That night you can't sleep, but you're a real trooper, so you repeat your dumbass actions the very next day (hell, it's Sunday) this time clad in a long-sleeve T-shirt and cotton pants. Never mind that most cotton stitched clothing doesn't do much to protect you from the sun (all of this, my friends, I know from experience). Years later, your doctor makes a nifty little chemotherapy schedule for you and informs you and your loved ones that you might die soon. Have a nice day.

Here's how it really works. Excessive exposure to the sun's ultraviolet A and B rays activates melanin, a pigment, causing skin to darken or tan as a protective measure. The skin cells that produce melanin, called melanocytes, can eventually transform into cancer cells that multiply rapidly, causing melanoma. Left untreated (and many people wouldn't know a melanoma if it sat on the tip of their nose, as it often does), melanoma can metastasize, or spread, from the surface of the skin to internal organs. Then, about 70 percent of those stricken die within five years.

Melanoma is the most commonly occurring cancer in women between the ages of 25 and 29. Fifty percent of all melanoma cases are reported in people under 50. Persons who have experienced blistering sunburns before the age of 20 are more likely to develop melanoma, as are those with light hair, fair complexions and a family history of the disease. And the whole ordeal is highly preventable.

All you have to do is set aside a few bucks from your beer money to purchase a paba-free sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor of 15 or greater, apply it 30 minutes before exposure and every two hours thereafter. If you're in and out of the water, slather up each time you get out. It's simple, really: If you want to play in the sun and live to tell about it, take my advice.

--Mike Ratchett, Alibi Staff Nurse

e-mail: achoo@alibi.com

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