By Danielle C. Malka

Arizona Summer Wildcat

ummertime the term invokes images of radiantly tan bodies frolicking in the hot sun.

The quest for a beautiful glowing tan continues.

College students all over the country are basking in the sun's rays, despite warnings that sun exposure causes permanent skin damage and skin cancer.

Stacy Brenner, an agriculture junior at the UA, found a mole on her upper chest last February and went to the Student Health Center to get it checked out. At first, the dermatologist said there was almost no chance it was cancerous, but a week later Brenner got a phone call which would change her life.

It was malignant melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer.

Two weeks later, Brenner went into surgery and then spent four weeks in recovery.

"Skin cancer is pretty eye-opening," Brenner said of her experience. "I really worry about people I see laying out at the Rec Center.

"At first I was disgusted by it, but now I tell everyone about it. It's like being an AIDS advocate I'm a skin cancer advocate. People really need to be careful," Brenner said.

Lee Ann Hamilton, a UA health educator and graduate student in higher education, has had three episodes of basal cell skin cancer. She found the first when she was only 33.

"I found them early, so they weren't really bad," Hamilton said. "I'm aware of the signs. I noticed that I had a little rough scaly area that would occasionally bleed. That's not normal.

"You need to keep an eye on your body because no one else is going to do it for you," she said.

Hamilton said she was never a sun worshiper, but swam competitively and worked outdoors as a lifeguard. She said that since she has fair skin and burns easily, she is at high risk.

"When I was a kid, nobody put sunscreen on. We didn't know," she said. "We can't do anything about the damage that's already been done, but we can protect our skin from now forward.

"If you notice any change in your skin that doesn't look normal, get it checked out," she said.

According to a brochure distributed by the American Academy of Dermatology, one in six Americans will develop skin cancer in his or her lifetime, and the number is growing by 3.4 percent each year.

Arizona holds the infamous title of being the skin cancer capital of the United States, said Paola Villar-Werstler of the Arizona Cancer Center. She said the state is second only to Queensland, Australia in worldwide skin cancer occurrence.

The big problem, Villar-Werstler said, is that people still see a tan as a healthy thing, but in reality, "tanning is the skin's response to sun damage."

What's even worse is that the sun's damage has a cumulative effect, she said, which means that there is no advantage to getting a slow tan. Whether a person stays in the sun for hours at a time or for 10 minutes a day, it all adds up, she said.

"No tan is a safe tan," she said.

Tanning, the result of a complex defense mechanism within the skin, occurs when pigment-producing cells called melanocytes produce and distribute melanin, said Dr. Kevin Welch, a dermatologist with the Arizona Cancer Center.

When the skin is exposed to the sun, the melanocyte cells become more active, the melanin gets distributed, and a tan results.

But the sun's ultraviolet rays are mutagenic, that is, they cause chromosome changes and breaks in the DNA of the cells, Welch said. The defense mechanisms are overwhelmed with too much sun exposure and the breaks become self-sustaining.

Rather than being repaired, the mutations are passed on from cell to cell, from generation to generation, he said.

"Cancer is simply mutated cells reproducing without any real control," said Welch.

While light-skinned people are definitely more prone to skin cancer, anybody who is exposed to the sun long enough could eventually get it, said Welch.

Darker skin is less prone to skin cancer, not because it contains more melanin, but because the melanin is packaged differently, Welch said.

"In white skin it's packaged like snowflakes, with drops here and there, but in black skin it's more like snowballs," Welch said. The snowball pattern serves to better absorb the rays and thus protect the skin, he said.

There are three types of skin cancer, said Villar-Werstler. Two of these, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, are non-melanomas. Non-melanoma cancers are not deadly, but their debilitating effects may be hard to live with.

For example, squamous cell carcinoma, said Villar-Werstler, causes open sores on the face and pieces of flesh can be lost to surgery. Not only are the cancers themselves disfiguring, but so is the surgery that removes them, she said.

"Basal cell carcinoma has been called 'rodent ulcers' because it looked like a rat had been chewing on your face," Welch said.

The third and most serious type of skin cancer is malignant melanoma, cancer of the melanocytes.

"The reason it's so serious is that melanoma has mobility," Villar-Werstler said. "Once it begins growing in one area, it can metastasize to other areas, including vital organs. It can settle and grow anywhere in the body."

While the non-melanomas are often characterized by noticeable sores or disfigurement, melanoma cancer is sometimes harder to detect.

A person can have a mole that changes one day and six months later be dead from melanoma, Welch said.

Moreover, he said, melanoma isn't age-selective. In fact, college students are a common victim of this deadly disease.

"You can get it at 20 as easily as at 50," Welch said, adding that there were about six or seven cases of melanoma at the UA this year.

He said that the recent increase in the occurrence of skin cancer is related to the influx of light-skinned Europeans into sunnier areas and the fact that their skin was poorly adapted for heavy sun exposure.

"Northern Europeans' skin evolved for those places (where they lived)," he said. "Years ago, only Indians lived here, and only Aboriginals lived in Australia. They have good skin. Our skin is very poorly adapted for this weather."

Also, while a suntan was once considered low-class, the notion of a suntan was popularized in the '20s and '30s, said Welch.

"If you had time to get a suntan, you were affluent," he said.

But there is some good news. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, at least three-fourths of all skin cancers can be prevented if one takes simple precautions against the sun's ultraviolet radiation.

The American Academy of Dermatology has found that the average fair-skinned person will burn in only 10 minutes if unprotected. An oil or lotion claiming an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of two allows that person to stay in the sun twice that time without burning, said Villar-Werstler.

While this sounds pretty good, there is a catch. An SPF of two provides only 50 percent blockage, compared to the 97 percent blockage of an SPF of 34, she said.

"Anything under 15 blocks insufficient quantities of UV radiation," Villar-Werstler said. She added that sunscreens with SPFs less than 15 will soon become obsolete as the Food and Drug Administration heightens its standards for SPF labeling, which will occur sometime in 1996.

The most important thing to consider when choosing a sunscreen, said Villar-Werstler, is to "buy something that you will use . Walgreen's has to go through the same tests that Clinique does."

Even protecting yourself occasionally is worthwhile, she said.

"It's not enough, but it's worthwhile," she said. "It's like a smoker choosing to smoke only one pack of cigarettes instead of four. He's still doing damage, but a little bit less." Read Next Article