Preventing Melanoma: Not Just a Summertime Thing


Melanoma, is one cancer we usually associate with summer habits: sunbathing and beach time with inadequate sunscreen, playing day-long golf without a hat, sun exposure and burns from hours spent gardening, or even if not outside, becoming a tanning booth fan. But a recent study shows that some activities that raise melanoma risks can occur year-round. February is Cancer Prevention Month, so it’s definitely time to think about ways to reduce your melanoma risk.

Researchers have learned that alcohol is associated with many cancers, especially cancers of the digestive tract including the liver, pancreas, colon and rectum, as well as breast cancer. We know that the ethanol in alcoholic drinks is metabolized into a toxic molecule, acetaldehyde — the culprit in hangovers. Acetaldehyde also damages DNA and hinders DNA repair. It’s understandable that bathing the gastrointestinal tract in this toxin might cause cancers. But it seems like a stretch to blame it for a skin cancer.

Nevertheless, three studies with 210,252 people whose drinking habits were tracked for over 18 years, found that alcohol does increase melanoma risk in Caucasian men and women (who are more likely to develop this disease.) Each daily alcoholic drink, equal to 12 grams of alcohol, raises melanoma risk by 14%. Plus, researchers found that people who drank 20 grams of alcohol daily were just 2% more at risk of melanoma on the head, neck, arms or legs, but were 73% more likely to get melanoma on the trunk of the body (interestingly, not usually exposed to the sun). This location of melanomas though less common, comes with a worse prognosis.

A curious finding — most of the increased incidence from alcohol is linked to drinking white wine, which raised risk by 13% of the 14% total. But no significant risk was linked to red wine, beer or liquor. The reason: Some wines contain higher levels of acetaldehyde than are found in beer and liquor, and this could be the key distinction. The well-known antioxidants in red wine — lacking in white wine — may protect against acetaldehyde’s cancer-causing effects.

Melanoma is not a very common cancer: Only about 2.5% of the population, or 1 in 40 people get it. But melanoma can be a highly lethal cancer if it’s not caught early, so making an effort to prevent it is wise. There are plenty of data suggesting that moderating your drinking habits will reduce several cancer risks. And if you are concerned about melanoma, especially if someone in your immediate family has had this diagnosis, do consider both moderating your alcohol intake and switching from white wine to another type of beverage.

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