The objective of getting a tan is a ritual that tourists and residents alike seek out every Okanagan summer.
But a dermatological oncologist with BC Cancer says excessive exposure to harmful UV rays in this climate change era is a leading cause of melanoma, a skin cancer that will affect about 1,200 people in B.C. this year.
Dr. Harvey Lui says one in five British Columbians are destined to have some form of skin cancer during their lifetime. About 90 per cent of skin cancers are also associated with UV ray exposure.
“That is a significant number but if you look at Australia, there it is one in two people destined to get skin cancer because of the amount of sunlight they get,” said Lui.
Lui says melanoma is one of the most treatable and preventable forms of cancer – if detected early.
But if it goes undetectable until cancer becomes absorbed into your skin DNA, it is set up to spread in your body, requiring treatments like chemotherapy and radiation to try and bring it under control at that advanced stage.
Lui says there are three symptoms or indicators he tells patients to watch for as early signs of melanoma:
• A sore on your skin that has not healed within four to six weeks;
• A spot or mole on your skin that looks different in size or colour;
• If you have quite a few skin markings, you notice one mole or spot that stands out, looks different than the rest.
Lui said one unique aspect of melanoma is it is preventable and detectable to the human eye, and at that stage is readily treatable.
“When you worry about lung cancer, you have to go through x-rays and other stuff to get a diagnosis. You can’t see what is happening with your lungs with the human eye, but you can with skin cancer,” Lui said.
“The world’s best cancer detector is the human eye because you can see changes with your skin.”
To avoid those complications, Lui says using sunscreen and seeking shade are two important parts of sun safety, as is the need to recognize that while a tan may enhance your appearance it is a sign of skin damage.
“As a dermatologist, I don’t want people to be scared to go outside. Being outside and active is good for our physical and mental health. Exercise is good for our heart and lungs.”
But he cautions the idea of getting a tan as being healthy is misguided thinking, as while a tan may enhance a person’s appearance, the colouring of your skin is actually the body’s last line of defence against melanoma with the skin pigmentation response.
“You may think it is a nice idea but it is the body’s response to injury, and long-term exposure leads to skin going saggy, wrinkles, looking blotchy. When you are 40 years old your body skin looks like that of a 60-year-old,” he said.
And, he adds, you raise the probability of becoming a melanoma statistic.