Stacking the deck against skin cancer

A recent study found that people who drank one to three cups of coffee a day had about a 10 percent decreased risk of melanoma compared with those who drank none at all. Those who drank four or more cups had a 20 percent decreased risk.

With one in five Americans expected to develop skin cancer during their lifetimes, the disease certainly is studied extensively and the subject of public interest.

But it can be tough to keep up with all of the new information. As part of Skin Cancer Awareness Month, here are some of the latest findings and recommendations:

Just last week, a large study out of Australia, which has some of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, suggests vitamin B3 (specifically nicotinamide) might modestly lower the risks of the nonmelanoma skin cancers known as basal and squamous cell cancers in people with a history of growths.

The study involved 386 people who had at least two skin cancers in the previous five years. They took either 500 milligrams of the vitamin or placebos twice a day for a year.

People the vitamin for a year had a 23 percent lower rate of new skin cancers compared to others who took placebos. In absolute terms, it meant that vitamin users developed fewer than two of these cancers on average versus roughly 2.5 cancers for the others.

Besides reducing the rate of skin cancers, vitamin use also seemed to cut the rate of pre-cancers — scaly patches of skin called actinic keratoses — by 11 percent after three months of use and 20 percent after nine months.

“At the moment, it’s not something for the general population,” says the study’s leader, Dr. Diona Damian of the Dermatology University of Sydney in Australia. “We must always remember the basics of sun-sensible behaviors” — avoiding overexposure and using sunscreen — as the best ways for anyone to lower risk.”

The caveat of most studies — that more studies need to be done — was emphasized by many, particularly as vitamin supplements have long proved elusive for cancer prevention. Some studies have even found certain ones can be harmful.

Also last week, Consumer Reports magazine came out with its latest sunscreen investigation of 34 different products and found that 11 did not meet SPF (sun protection factor) claims.

“The Food and Drug Administration requires sunscreen manufacturers to test their products and label them correctly,” says Trisha Calvo, health and food deputy content editor for Consumer Reports, in a statement.

“Our findings are troubling because consumers may not be getting the amount of SPF protection they think they’re getting. On top of that, people often do not apply the right amount of sunscreen, fail to reapply it frequently enough, and don’t minimize their sun exposure, which could potentially put them at risk for overexposure to the sun’s rays,” says Calvo.

Most of the sunscreens tested met the standards and many were also the lowest-priced, including Coppertone Water Babies SPF 50 lotion, $10.50 (8 ounces), Equate (Wal-mart) Ultra Protection SPF 50 lotion, $9 (16 ounces), and Banana Boat SunComfort Continuous Spray SPF 50+, $11 (6 ounces).

Consumer Reports’ highest-rated sunscreen, La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-in Sunscreen Milk (SPF 60), received a perfect score of 100 but cost the most of those tested: $36 for a 5-ounce bottle.

The magazine found that eight of the eleven sunscreens that didn’t meet their SPF claims had an SPF below 30. For example, Yes To Cucumbers Natural SPF 30 had an average SPF of just 14. Sunscreens from Babyganics, Banana Boat, CVS, EltaMD, Hawaiian Tropic, Walgreens, and Vanicream also had SPF levels below their claims and less than SPF 30.

Aloe Gator SPF 40+ landed at the bottom Consumer Reports’ sunscreen ratings. While it rated excellent for UVB protection that would suppress burning, it earned poor marks for protection against UVA rays, which are constantly present during the day no matter the season and are potentially a more insidious threat to health than UVB rays because they penetrate deeply into the skin.

Although three sunscreens didn’t meet their SPF claims, the magazine says the products still had an SPF higher than 30 and are worth considering: Coppertone UltraGuard SPF 70+ tested as an SPF 59, Coppertone ClearlySheer for Beach & Pool SPF 50+ tested as an SPF 37, and Banana Boat Sport Performance with Powerstay Technology SPF 100 tested as an SPF 36.

The full report, which also features proper sunscreen-applications tips, complete product Ratings, and more, is available in the July 2015 issue of Consumer Reports and at www.ConsumerReports.org.

Despite studies showing that melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer, is on the rise in children, a study published in the April 9 edition of “The Journal of Pediatrics” says the opposite is true.

Researchers led by Dr. Lisa Campbell of Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland looked at national cancer registry data from 2000 to 2010.

They found that the overall number of new melanoma cases among children fell 12 percent each year from 2004 to 2010.

Among 15-to-19-year-olds, cases of melanoma decreased by almost 8 percent a year for boys from 2000 to 2010, and by 11 percent per year for girls, the study found.

The team suspects that effective public campaigns on the danger of UV rays from the sun or tanning beds are resulting in more kids playing indoors rather than outdoors and a rise in parental awareness of the importance of sunscreen and other sun-protective measures.

More than 20 percent of Medicare patients with melanoma faced delays in getting surgical treatment, a study in April reveals.

Researchers evaluated more than 32,000 melanoma patients covered by Medicare, the publicly funded insurance program for the elderly in the United States.

“We found around one in five Medicare patients experience a delay greater than 1.5 months and that 8 percent had surgery after three months,” says study researcher Dr. Jason Lott, who conducted the research while a postdoctoral fellow in dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., in a release.

Surgery within six weeks of diagnosis is the recommended time frame, although no formal schedule exists, according to background notes in the study. Timing is important, because the earlier a cancer is treated, the better the odds for successful results. Also, long waits to surgery can be anxiety-provoking, the authors said.

The delays, blamed likely on “scheduling backups,” were more common than expected, Lott said.

Surgery might have been delayed in some cases for reasons other than scheduling backups, he said. Given the patients’ ages — most were 75 or older — they could have had other major health conditions that needed to be treated first, he pointed out.

While most white people who develop skin cancer are older men, the reverse is true in Asian and Hispanic populations, according to a new study.

Researchers say Asian and Hispanic women are choosing to tan, thinking that their darker skin protects them from the sun’s harmful rays, and as a result are getting more skin cancers.

Reviewing more than 4,000 cases of non-melanoma skin cancers in white, Hispanic and Asian patients who underwent a specific type of surgical removal of those cancers, researchers found that 96 percent of cases occurred in whites. Of those patients, 64 percent were men with an average age of 66.

In Asians and Hispanics, these ratios were reversed, with about two-thirds of skin cancers occurring in women. Hispanic women were an average age of 62; Asian women were an average age of 70.

The study was presented in March at the American Academy of Dermatology’s annual meeting in San Francisco.

“I think the main point we were trying to bring home is that ethnic skin is not really thought of as at risk for skin cancer, but all ethnicities need to be mindful and diligent about getting their skin checked and protecting themselves from the sun,” says study author Dr. Arisa Ortiz, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at University of California, San Diego, in a statement.

Coffee, once thought to be unhealthy, keeps racking up points for health benefits.

A study published in the Jan. 20 edition of the “Journal of the National Cancer Institute” suggests that java may protect you against melanoma.

“We found that four or more cups of coffee per day was associated with about a 20 percent reduced risk of malignant melanoma,” says lead author Erikka Loftfield, a doctoral student at Yale University School of Public Health who is completing her dissertation work at the cancer institute.

Previous research has shown that coffee drinking could protect against less deadly forms of skin cancer, apparently by mitigating the damage to skin cells caused by the sun’s ultraviolet rays, the researchers said in background notes.

The researchers gathered data from a study run by the Institutes of Health and AARP. A food questionnaire was sent to 3.5 million AARP members living in six states: California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina and Pennsylvania; as well as two cities, Atlanta and Detroit.

The questionnaire yielded coffee drinking information for nearly 447,400 white seniors in 1995 and 1996. Researchers followed up with the participants for about 10 years on average.

All participants were cancer-free when they filled out the questionnaire, and the researchers adjusted for other factors that could influence melanoma risk. These included ultraviolet radiation exposure, body mass index, age, sex, physical activity, alcohol intake and smoking history.

They found that people who drank the most coffee every day enjoyed a lower risk of melanoma, compared with those who drank little to no coffee.

People who drank one to three cups a day had about a 10 percent decreased risk of melanoma compared with those who drank none at all, while those who drank four or more cups had a 20 percent decreased risk.

The study only uncovered an association between coffee consumption and melanoma risk; it didn’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship. Previous studies have indicated that caffeine could protect skin cells against ultraviolet-B radiation.

The Associated Press contributed to this column.