UV Rays and Skin Cancer

July 12, 2018

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has named July as Ultraviolet (UV) Safety Month.  The goal is to spread the word about how important it is to protect everyone’s skin from the harmful effects of UV rays.

Radiation is the emission of energy from any source, and there are many types of radiation.  Ultraviolet radiation is a form of electromagnetic radiation and the main source of UV radiation (rays) is the sun, although it can also come from man-made sources such as tanning beds and welding torches.

Exposure to UV radiation is the main factor that causes skin cells to become cancer cells.  According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the only international organization devoted solely to education, prevention, early detection, and prompt treatment of skin cancer, about 90 percent of non-melanoma skin cancers and about 86 percent of melanomas are associated with exposure to UV radiation from the sun.

Skin cancer develops in the cells in the epidermis, the top or outer layer of the skin.  UV radiation is made up of UVA and UVB rays which are able to penetrate the skin and cause permanent damage to the cells below:

  • UVA rays age skin cells and can damage their DNA.  These rays are linked to long-term skin damage such as wrinkles, but they are also thought to play a role in some skin cancers.  Most tanning beds give off large amounts of UVA, which has been found to increase skin cancer risk.
  • UVB rays have slightly more energy than UVA rays.  They can damage skin cells’ DNA directly, and are the main rays that cause sunburns.  They are also thought to cause most skin cancers.

Too much UV radiation from the sun can damage the genetic material (the DNA) in your skin cells.  If enough DNA damage builds up over time, it can cause cells to start growing out of control, which can lead to skin cancer.

Melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers can be invasive.  As well as growing across the surface of the skin, tumors can sometimes grow down through the layers of skin.  If the tumor grows through the wall of a blood or lymph vessel, cancer cells can break off and spread to other parts of the body.  This is why skin cancer is usually easier to treat successfully when it is caught at an early stage.

At our center, we use external beam radiation therapy (EBRT) to treat skin cancer.  EBRT is a painless and noninvasive treatment for skin cancer, damaging cancer cells and their ability to multiply.  During treatment, high-energy X-rays are delivered to the cancer cells with a linear accelerator (LINAC).  Radiation is very damaging to the cancer cells, but is well tolerated by the surrounding normal cells.  Also, radiation penetrates only a very short distance into the skin, so that internal organs can be completely spared from its effects.  Treatments are outpatient and usually take about 15 minutes.  Side effects are generally minimal, and most patients return to routine activities immediately after each treatment.

To learn more about treating skin cancer with radiation therapy, please contact us today!