How Can Young Athletes Evade Skin Cancer?

By Yolanda Heiberger

2009_skincancerUsing sunscreen, wearing long pants, and seeking shade can help at-risk youths lower their likelihood of developing the most common form of skin cancers.Teenagers can pick up a lot of bad habits in high school: smoking, drinking, spending time outdoors in tank tops. While that last item seems insignificant, carefree teen days in the sun can lead to adult struggles with cancer.

“Many people don’t realize that repeated exposure to the sun during childhood and adolescence increases your risk of developing skin cancer later in life,” says UAB health education professor Brian F. Geiger, Ed.D. “High-school athletes exposed to hours of sun each day during practices and games, especially without proper sun protection, are facing an increased risk of skin cancer during adulthood.”

(Sun)Screen Pass

Earlier this year, Geiger and Jason S. Fulmore of the School of Education surveyed 350 high-school athletic coaches across Alabama. Coaches were asked how often they discussed key sun protection behaviors with their student-athletes, including the importance of wearing sunscreen, wearing a hat or long pants, and seeking shade. More than half of the coaches had discussed only one of the behaviors—wearing sunscreen—during the previous month.

The coaches themselves weren’t modeling safe behavior. Less than 20 percent reported regularly wearing sunscreen, a practice dermatologists consider to be one of the most important sun protection measures. About half reported that their only method of protection was wearing long pants during practices and games. “The coaches aren’t opposed to these behaviors; they just don’t think about them,” says Geiger. “Like most people, they don’t realize how common skin cancer is and the importance of regular, consistent sun protection.”

Getting Creamed

Skin cancer is the most prevalent of all types of cancer, affecting more than a million Americans each year. And “sun exposure during childhood and adolescence is a risk factor in the development of non-melanoma skin cancers, which account for 99 percent of all skin cancers,” says UAB dermatologist Conway C. Huang, M.D. “With each exposure, mutations occur in your DNA that your body has to repair. After a certain number of exposures, your body can’t repair the damage, and a mutation will result in a skin cancer. More sun exposure in childhood will accelerate this process.

“Role models are important in influencing young people to practice consistent sun protection behaviors,” Huang adds. “Applying sunscreen should become a regimented part of the athlete’s routine—just like stretching.”