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Overdosing on Sun During Vacation Boosts Melanoma Risk, Says Fox Chase Cancer Center Chief of Dermatology

PHILADELPHIA (May 16, 2000) -- So you've been chained to your job for 50 weeks and it's finally time to hit the road for vacation-soak up some sun (a lot of sun), bask on the beach or by the pool, swim or water ski. Many people think that if they get relatively little sun exposure for most of the year, it's okay to turn into a total sun worshipper during those priceless weeks of vacation. And for kids, what's a summer-long vacation for but to have fun in the sun?

"Unfortunately, this attitude sets the stage for serious sunburns that can lead to the life-threatening skin cancer called melanoma," said Dr. Stuart R. Lessin of Haverford, Pa., recently appointed director of dermatology for Fox Chase Cancer Center. "It appears that occasional intense exposure is more likely to lead to melanoma than to other skin cancers."

Sandy beaches and water intensify UV exposure by reflecting light, so precautions are essential at many vacation spots. Lessin urges people to put on hats and protective clothing that covers more skin than a bathing suit, shorts or tank top as well as applying sunscreen before going out in the sun. This is necessary even on cloudy days, because clouds do not block ultraviolet light.

"Without protection, intense exposure increases a child's risk of developing melanoma later in life, possibly as young as age 20," Lessin explained. "Overexposure to UV radiation during childhood and teenage years could account for the fact that melanoma is the most rapidly increasing cancer among young adults in this country. This makes it particularly important for vacationers to protect themselves and their children from sunburn by using sunscreens with a high sun protection factor (SPF)."

The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that 80 percent of a person's lifetime sun damage occurs before age 18, especially during peak summer sun hours, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. This is the period most likely to result in sunburns.

People who regularly work outside or spend considerable time outdoors are at risk of several kinds of skin cancer because of their cumulative UV exposure. According to the Academy, studies have confirmed that excessive sun exposure contributes to at least two-thirds of all melanomas, especially intermittent, intense sun exposure. Basically, it's the total lifetime exposure to the sun's ultraviolet radiation that leads to skin cancers.

Because it can spread, or metastasize, from the skin to other parts of the body, melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. It arises in pigmented cells called melanocytes-those containing melanin, such as moles. Severe blistering sunburns, especially at young ages, multiply the risk of melanoma.

People with red or blond hair and fair skin that freckles or sunburns easily have the highest risk of melanoma. People with many large dark moles of types known as a dysplastic nevus (atypical mole) and congenital nevus (a mole that is present at birth) also have increased risk.

The risk is about 20 times higher for whites than for African Americans due to the protective effect of dark skin pigment. However, dark-skinned people can still develop melanoma, especially on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, under nails or even inside the mouth or in internal organs.

In rare cases, melanoma can also occur in the pigmented portion of the eye.

As with other cancers, early detection is the key to successful treatment for melanoma. An early melanoma may be curable by surgery alone. However, tumors that have spread to the lymph nodes or penetrated lower layers of skin may recur or spread to internal organs.

"A variety of new chemotherapy and therapeutic vaccine regimens are available at Fox Chase to treat patients with advanced melanoma," Lessin said. "We also have treatment programs for patients at high risk of recurrence, including those with a family history of the disease."

Fox Chase Cancer Center, one of the nation's first comprehensive cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute in 1974, conducts basic and clinical research; programs of prevention, detection and treatment of cancer; and community outreach. For more information about Fox Chase activities, visit the Center's web site at:

Fox Chase Cancer Center, part of the Temple University Health System, is one of the leading cancer research and treatment centers in the United States. Founded in 1904 in Philadelphia as one of the nation’s first cancer hospitals, Fox Chase was also among the first institutions to be designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1974. Fox Chase researchers have won the highest awards in their fields, including two Nobel Prizes. Fox Chase physicians are also routinely recognized in national rankings, and the Center’s nursing program has received the Magnet recognition for excellence four consecutive times. Today, Fox Chase conducts a broad array of nationally competitive basic, translational, and clinical research, with special programs in cancer prevention, detection, survivorship, and community outreach.  For more information, call 1-888-FOX CHASE or (1-888-369-2427).

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