Melanoma is always a concern for those living in the Sunshine State. Not only are residents exposed to harmful rays year round, many older men and women retire to Florida to lay in the sun during their senior years. As Michael Steppie, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at Florida State University, has often pointed out, the incidence of melanoma in men above the age of 65 is twice as high as the rate in women. By age 80, the rate triples. With older men being the largest high-risk group, melanoma prevention and early detection is especially important in reducing the mortality rate for this group. After all, research suggests that nearly 90 percent of melanomas could be preventable.
Dr. Steppie recently collaborated with Ranjan Perera, Ph.D., associate professor at Sanford Burnham Presbys Medical Discovery Institute at Lake Nona and other colleagues to study new biomarkers that could potentially provide earlier and more reliable clinical diagnostics for the deadliest form of skin cancer. In the past, many dermatologists warned vitiligo patients suffering from the disorder that generates white patches on their skin that they could be at a higher risk for skin cancer. It seemed to be a reasonable warning as sufferers lack the natural protection of the skin pigment melanin. However, more recent studies into the genetics of vitiligo revealed that the genes, which increase the risk of vitiligo may simultaneously decrease the person’s risk for melanoma.*
In the past, it was believed that vitiligo was an autoimmune disorder, but the research studies at Sanford Burnham Prebys have identified a microRNA called miR-211 as a possible culprit. The role of microRNAs are to prevent gene expression. Since damaged vitiligo skin cells are void of this RNA, it appears to be a disease involving abnormal cellular energy metabolism. While going from target to treatment could take time, identifying miR-211 and the genes it regulates could be promising therapeutic targets. Presently, Perera and Steppie are working to launch large -scale studies that could verify the promising findings published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.
As a noted Florida dermatologist and long-time advocate of melanoma prevention, Dr. Steppie offers these sun safety tips for all people who live in warm regions:
- Remember that all skin types can develop skin cancer including people who tan easily or have naturally dark skin.
- Generously apply sunscreen to all exposed skin — even on cloudy days — year-round.
- Use a sunscreen that provides broad-spectrum protection from both UVA and UVB rays and has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 SPF.
- Apply approximately one ounce of sunscreen (a shot-glassful) 15 minutes before sun exposure.
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours and after swimming or sweating.
- Keep newborns out of the sun. Sunscreens should be used on babies over the age of six months.
- Wear a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat (preferably sun-protective clothing, accessories and swimwear carrying a UPF 50+ label) and UV-Blocking sunglasses.
- Seek shade when possible. The sun’s rays are the strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Water, snow and sand reflect and magnify the damaging rays of the sun, increasing your chance of sunburn. Especially during peak hours while at the beach, stay in the shade from an umbrella carrying a UPF 50+.
- Avoid tanning beds – there is no way to get a tan through UV exposure without increasing the risk for skin cancer. Using a tanning bed before age 35 increases your risk for melanoma by 75 percent.
- Be aware that certain prescription medications and over-the-counter drugs can increase your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight
- Sun-proof your car windows with UVA-filtering window glass or film.
Source: Melanoma Research Foundation, American Academy of Dermatology
*NOTE: Having vitiligo does not mean you cannot get skin cancer, so it is very important for those with the disorder to use recommended forms of sun protection and visit his or her dermatologist for regular checkups. In addition to increasing the risk of skin cancer, sunburn can make vitiligo worse.