Prevent cancer: Get a sunburn

Prevent cancer: Get a sunburn

Vanderbilt University, the Univ. of New Mexico and the Journal of the National Cancer Institute are all agog: “Totally counterintuitive!” “Very strange.” “Doesn’t make much sense.”

What has them so flustered is the new evidence that sunlight actually prevents cancer. For the last 40 years they have been telling us that the sun is our enemy and has been killing untold millions from all the ominous-sounding skin “omas”—malignant melanoma, squamous-cell carcinoma, and basal cell carcinoma.

Of course these findings are “totally counterintuitive” to them; they have had their “tuits” wrong from the beginning.

Everything the experts “know” about the sun is wrong

“Sunlight exposure, a major risk factor for the potentially deadly skin cancer melanoma, may also help victims survive that disease, new research indicates…And a second study indicates that exposure to sunlight may reduce the risk of getting cancer of the lymph glands,” reports the Associated Press.

As all my faithful readers know, sunlight in not a major risk factor for melanoma—or any other form of cancer. Artificial light is far more likely to be one of the causes, and the lack of sunshine is probably the major cause. Melanoma is usually found “where the sun don’t shine,” and not on the areas of skin ordinarily exposed.

Melanoma is more common in Ohio than in Florida, where the sun shines 363 days a year. In Australia, where the sun shines 365 days a year in the northern latitudes, office workers have a higher incidence of melanoma than lifeguards who bake in the sun day after day. Is this too simple and obvious for people with multiple degrees to understand?

“It’s really strange, because sunburn seems to be one of the factors associated with improved survival, and that doesn’t make much sense, so we think sunburn’s a proxy for the kind of sun exposure that leads to melanoma,” said Dr. Marianne Berwick of University of New Mexico, in the Associated Press article.

Well, Marianne, you really threw me with that one. How can sunburn be a “proxy” for “sun exposure that leads to melanoma” if sunburn is “associated with improved survival”?

Believe it when you see it

Berwick studied 528 melanoma cases and came up with this counterintuitive thing. i.e., increased survival with increased sun exposure. She is now doing a study on 3,700 melanoma patients worldwide.

To Marianne’s credit, she did say “vitamin D, which the skin makes in response to sunlight, may be a factor. Vitamin D can help regulate cell growth and help cells stop unneeded growth.” Now that is definitely true.

And it gets even better: Karin Ekstrom Smedby and colleagues of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, studied 3,000 cancer patients and a similar number of people without cancer in Denmark and Sweden. They found that increased exposure to ultraviolet radiation through sunbathing and sunburns resulted in a reduced incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a common form of lymph node cancer.

But sometimes you can’t teach an old dogma new tricks: Vanderbilt researcher Kathleen Egan, is sticking with what she knows (or thinks she knows). She says it’s unlikely to be sunlight itself that is an explanation of these findings. “Sunlight, particularly ultraviolet radiation, is a very well established human carcinogen. Nothing in these papers should in any way detract from this message,” said Egan.

Halfway there

The Journal of the American Cancer Institute article that brought these “counterintuitive” findings to the attention of the general public is good, as far as it goes, but there are some dangling suppositions that are inexcusable, such as: “Solar radiation is a well-established skin carcinogen, responsible for more cancers worldwide than any other single agent.” While that is true, it paints an inaccurate picture because 90 percent of those “cancers” are benign and easily treated.

But since they do mention the obvious—melanoma is usually found in non-exposed areas of the body and vitamin D may be an important preventive because millions of people are D-deficient in the winter months—I’ll give them a C+ overall.

All researchers took pains to make it clear that their findings “do not mean people should rush out and start baking in the sun.” So what should sun lovers do? Well, they didn’t have a good answer for that. Their response was (surprise, surprise) “More research is needed.”

They can research it all they want but it will not change the fact that these sun-phobics have been barking up the wrong (shady) tree.


“Sunlight and Reduced Risk of Cancer: Is The Real Story Vitamin D?”

J Natl Cancer Inst 2005; 97(3): 161-163“Sunshine Good For Cancer Patients?” CBS News (, 2/1/05