One hand was on the steering wheel. The other compressed the blood dripping from her arm where one of her many moles used to be. Unconcerned, journalism senior Monica Roos got home, patched up the hole and ignored it.
Little did Roos know that this incident was the beginning of her battle with skin cancer. A few months later, her arm still bled which prompted her to visit the dermatologist to have it biopsied.
“They put three shots of numbing agent in me so I couldn’t feel the pain. But I could still feel the knife carving into me and digging out skin,” Roos said. “They slapped a band-aid on it and told me I’d have the results in two weeks.”
Roos now visits the dermatologist every three to six months for a full-body scan, and it is likely that every time she goes in she will have something biopsied or removed. Roos’ skin type makes her 50 percent more likely to develop melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, and she is 10 times more likely to die from it. This makes it difficult to live in a place like San Luis Obispo, where it is sunny 287 days a year.
Video by Barbara Levin
Skin cancer and sun damage can become very serious problems for people later in life, especially for those who spend a great deal of time in the sun without using protection.
The outdoor desire
Biological sciences professor Pat Fidopiastis said Californians, especially San Luis Obispo residents, are at a higher risk of developing skin cancer due to the climate and outdoor culture.
“SLO is an outdoorsy place. Between the hikes and biking and surfing and the double whammy of cool breezes to make you not feel hot and more apt to put sunscreen on, it definitely puts us more at risk,” Fidopiastis said.
The tanning culture
San Luis Obispo’s outdoor culture attracts another quality in its residents — the desire to look tan. Civil engineering senior Casey Handcock works at Planet Beach, a local tanning salon, and sees Cal Poly students use the salon daily.
“There’s definitely a tanning culture at Cal Poly. Our whole clientele is college students,” Handcock said. “We go to Cal Poly and we have beaches everywhere and our amazing Rec Center pool where everyone prances around in their bikinis. People want to be tan for that.”
Graphic by Allison Royal
Handcock went on to explain that there is a certain image for girls at Cal Poly.
“I think the typical ‘Poly Dolly’ is tall, skinny, with blonde hair and an awesome tan,” Handcock said.
However, having an “awesome tan” and spending time in the outdoors unprotected puts students and San Luis Obispo residents at risk of skin damage and developing skin cancer.
The science behind UV rays
Fidopiastis researches the effects of ultraviolet (UV) light on microbial growth. He said there are different forms of UV light that come from the sun: UVA, UVB and UVC. UVA is highly penetrating, so when it hits your skin it can go deeper and cause cancers in deeper tissues.
“I have seen individuals where they will have melanoma on their lower back or some place random and they’re just like, ‘why there?’” Fidopiastis said. “But a lot of those cancers are caused by UVA, or oxidative damage where the sunlight hits molecules in your body and creates free radicals.”
When those radicals build up in your body from excess sun exposure, they can move to various places and react with DNA to modify it, causing melanoma to occur in places that do not get a lot of sunlight.
Graphic by Allison Royal
In contrast, UVB is less penetrating and is mostly associated with tanning. When UVB hits the skin, it mostly affects melanocytes — cells just below the surface — to produce melanin, or the brown pigment in your skin.
“We all think of being tan as this healthy thing. But tans are actually a stress response to ultraviolet light,” Fidopiastis said. “Our body is saying we need to produce this reflective brown pigment to stop this from happening to us. It’s a shield, essentially.”
When UVB bumps into melanocytes, it damages the DNA. This increases the likelihood of mutations and in turn increases the probability of cancer.
Though being tan may look good now, UV exposure causes skin to look wrinkled and aged down the road.
“When you’re younger, your skin tends to be smoother and softer,” Fidopiastis said. “But when you are exposed to excess UVA — because of its deep penetration and its influence on connective tissue — it starts to pull that skin in and you start to see the wrinkles. It may look good now to have a tan, but when you’re 30 or 40, you’ll start to look 10 years older.”
Roos learned the hard way to protect herself from both skin cancer and sun damage.
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Fidopiastis mentioned that many people do not realize that just one sunburn can increase their chance of getting skin cancer later in life.
“If you got burned as a kid, that’s a potential source of cancer when you’re 40 years old,” he said. “That’s a weird thing to think, that some mistake that your parents made when you were five can kill you when you’re 40. But that’s the reality of it and that’s what we’ve seen.”
Protect yourself the right way
Agriculture business senior Jack Beritzhoff admits to rarely wearing sunscreen when participating in outdoor activities in San Luis Obispo.
“I usually don’t wear sunscreen because I either forget to put it on before leaving the house or I just want to take advantage of the sun,” Beritzhoff said. “I don’t always get sunburnt, but when I do it’s usually from a long day at the beach.”
Wearing sunscreen is one way to prevent sunburns and sun damage. However, it is important to use it properly.
“Use at least SPF 15 or higher on your lips and skin. Even 15 is on the low end because a lot of people will stay out longer than what the 15 will afford them,” Fidopiastis said. “Hopefully people realize that it means that you can stay out in the sun 15 times longer than the amount of time you would typically burn in. So if you burn in one minute, with SPF 15 on you will burn in 15 minutes instead.”
Fidopiastis said it is also important to reapply sunscreen throughout the day, check the expiration dates and use sunscreen that has a broad spectrum, meaning it filters both UVA and UVB.
Wearing sunglasses is especially important; Fidopiastis said many people do not realize they can get deadly skin cancer in their eyes. In addition, eye conditions like cataracts can develop overtime from sun exposure.
“Blindness due to cataracts is a huge thing,” Fidopistis said. “And a lot of those cases are due primarily to individuals that don’t protect their eyes properly.”
Roos also advocates for students to wear sunglasses to protect their eyes from skin cancer.
“If you’re going to be out in a swimsuit or in shorts and a tank top, just protect yourself,” she said. “Put on some sunglasses, wear some sunscreen or cover up, because it can be devastating,” she said.