Utahns at greater risk for skin cancer than most in U.S.; experts offer prevention tips

Posted at 10:29 PM, Aug 02, 2015
and last updated 2015-08-03 12:22:01-04

SALT LAKE CITY - Year after year, Utah is usually in the top three for the states with the highest risk for skin cancer.

Doctor Tawnya Bowles, a surgical oncologist at Intermountain Medical Center, spoke about the factors that put Utahns at risk for skin cancer.

“We have a couple of things working against us,” she said. “One is that we're at a higher elevation than other places. So, when we're outdoors doing activities, we get more exposure to the sun's damaging rays. The other thing is that Utahns like to be outdoors, so a lot of people like to golf, cycle, snow skiing, water sports--those all lead to reflection of the sun and more sun exposure."

The average age for skin cancer patients is 62, however doctors are starting to see that number vary drastically.

“But we have a significant group of young people that are getting melanoma,” Bowles said. “Especially in women aged 25 to 40.”

Doctors believe that's because of tanning beds. Bowles said they used to hear that having a base tan was safer than a sunburn, and that the exposure in a tanning bed is safer. But she said that is not actually the case.

Shea Boone is a survivor of melanoma cancer who said she used to tan often.

“I abused tanning beds,” she said. “I never wore sunscreen a day in my life. I abused them so badly, I would tan probably five times a week."

Boone said she started using tanning beds at the age of 13. She was diagnosed with melanoma as a young adult. She had to have surgery to have a large chunk of tissue removed around a cancerous growth, and seven years later: she found another one.

But this one was worse, and she had to have lymph nodes removed as well.

“It's just not worth it,” Boone said. “I know everybody feels like they look better with a tan, but there's other, safer options. And if I would have known back then what I know now, I definitely wouldn't have abused my skin the way I did."

Bowles said a tan is a sign that your body is responding to damaging rays, and that you should always take precautions--not just against blistering burns, but also chronic tanning.

Sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher is just one habit Bowles said you should get used to. She also suggests you cover up with hats and long-sleeved clothing whenever possible.

"We all struggle at wearing sunscreen the right way, because it has to be put on every couple of hours, and if you're out doing activities it can wear off in the water or when you sweat," Bowles said.

Boone said skin cancer is not something to take lightly, and she said she's been lucky to catch her melanomas when she has.

Bowles suggests you get your skin checked every year, either by a family doctor or by a dermatologist. She also mentioned some common places people don't think to check for abnormal growths, including the part in your hair, behind your ears, between your toes and on the soles of your feet.