Skin Cancers as a Risk Factor

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work, Emeritus

AUGUST 27, 2018

Findings for Former Teenagers 

You may know that there are three major types of skin cancer: basal cell, squamous cell and melanoma. There are a few others that occur far less frequently, but we mostly hear about the first three. We also know that basal and squamous cell cancers are almost always completely curable, but that melanoma is more serious and can be deadly. The American Cancer Society has a good overview.

We know all too well that all three are related to sun exposure, and we hear frequently about the necessity of sun block and sun protection. The trouble is that we didn’t hear about these precautions in our reckless youth. How many others remember lying under the sun, coated in baby oil, and holding a shiny reflector near our faces to increase the tan? Do you remember the ubiquitous billboard of the small blond girl whose bathing suit has being pulled down by an adorable puppy: exposing her bottom and her tan. This was a famous Coppertone ad, and I now am pretty horrified by both the tanning message and the little girl’s nudity.

I am thinking about this because of a recent study that suggests that people who have unusually high numbers of basal cell carcinomas may be at increased risk of other cancers, including blood, breast, colon and prostate. This is especially upsetting because it means some of us are at a higher risk due to behaviors long ago, certainly due to things that we cannot begin to control now.

It seems a miracle that most of us get through our teens and early adulthood without more damage. All of us behaved sometimes in ways that we aren’t proud of now, and most of us engaged in behavior that could be fairly classified as risky. But we were thinking (or not thinking, more to the point) about drugs or alcohol or sex or too fast driving. We weren’t thinking about lying on the beach and increasing our cancer risks.

Since this is nothing we can change, why am I bringing it to your attention? The obvious reason is that being well informed is always a good idea, and can be a health-saving strategy in Cancer World. I had one basal cell cancer on my nose removed some years ago, and it was not a very pleasant experience. I am grateful that it has been just one, and I am diligent about the annual dermatology skin check. If you have had multiple basal cell cancers, it seems sensible to know that your risk may be greater for some other things and to be sure that you have a discussion with your doctor. You may not be able to do anything to prevent another cancer, but you can be smart about screening and skin checks.

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