Are You Aware of the Sun?

When I first saw it there was sun awareness month, I felt it was a little silly.

Of course people are aware of the sun. It is a constant reminder that too much of it can be a bad thing, from a simple sunburn to a heightened risk of melanoma. Since childhood, it’s been clear that when you go outside, you need to either slather on that weird-smelling cream or cover yourself head-to-toe. The only other option is to avoid the sun altogether. So yes, Canadians are very aware of the sun.

However, the rates of skin cancer in Canada are rising. So how much real awareness around the sun is there?

Melanoma currently accounts for about 5.5 per cent of total cancer diagnoses in Canada, the fourth most after breast, prostate and colorectal. The Canadian Cancer Society says that melanoma diagnosis continues to increase, despite the disease being the most preventable of all cancers. The Canadian Skin Cancer Foundation (CSCF) raises even more alarm, saying there are more new cases of skin cancer each year than breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancers combined. Further, they state that people born in the 1990s have a two to three times higher risk of getting skin cancer than those born in the 1960s.

The reasons for this are still being investigated, but there are some major culprits.

Exposure to Ultraviolet light, or UV light, is the driving force behind most skin cancers, and it is listed as a Group One IARC carcinogen. The use of tanning beds has been linked to the increase in melanoma, since they  sometimes emit UV radiation up to 15 times higher than the sun at peak intensity. The International Agency for Research on Cancer Working Group says using a tanning bed before the age of 35 increases the risk of melanoma by 75 per cent.

This trend unfortunately impacts women more than men. The American Academy of Dermatology Association published a paper saying that skin cancer has increased 800 per cent in women aged 18-39 between 1970 and 2009. The increased use of tanning beds, which are used by women at a far higher rate than men, has been directly blamed for this increase,. With a cursory glance at tanning and its role in beauty standards today, it’s clear why cancers like this remain prevalent in young women.

The second reason for increased melanoma rates is ozone depletion. It’s been widely known that “holes” in the ozone layer have been detected since the late 1970s, often due to the use of chemicals like CFCs and HCFCs. There is some evidence that these holes, areas where the ozone layer is extremely thin, are shrinking. It was suspected that in the mid-1990s, depletion hit its peak. However, scientists believe that we will not know for sure if our efforts to repair ozone layer have paid off until around 2030.

The ozone layer protects earth from harmful UV rays, and a reduced ozone layer has been linked to skin cancer. Environment Canada predicts the layer is at its thinnest around late winter and early spring and were at their lowest levels in the 1990s. This is why it is important to use sunscreen even in the colder months of the year.

It is true, telling people to be aware of the sun seems silly because it touches almost everything in our life. But similar to how some young people believe that vaping is safer than smoking, understanding what the sun is and what it does to us may lead us away from using its most harmful sides. Just because the sun is right there doesn’t mean you’re aware of what it does, or how it is linked to cancer.

Check out our page about facts and myths about melanoma here. To check if you have skin cancer, find the Canadian Dermatology Association’s examination how-to here.

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