As the largest organ, our skin is the most exposed organ to environmental factors. When skin cells are exposed to UV rays, the risk of skin cancers like melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma increases. Thus, our lifestyle decisions, from sleeping to what we eat and drink and our choice of recreational activities, can impact our risk of skin diseases like cancer.
In Australia, our skin cancer rates are among the highest in the world, so it's important to maintain a healthy lifestyle to reduce our chances of developing melanoma.
Sleep schedules and cancer risk
Your circadian rhythm is your body's internal clock, which roughly aligns with the 24-hour daily cycle of the Earth. Recent studies have discovered that disruptions to your circadian rhythm, particularly from night shift work, can negatively impact your health and could potentially lead to tumour development. The risk of developing melanoma increases during night shift work due to high exposure to artificial light, which inhibits the creation of melatonin, the hormone that aids sleep. Therefore, the effect of long-term shift work accumulates over time.
Moreover, constant interruptions in breathing while sleeping, called 'sleep apnoea', reduces your immune system's resilience, which can make you more susceptible to a range of diseases and illnesses, including cancer.
Physical activity and cancer risk
As a blanket rule, exercise is good for our bodies. However, taking appropriate measures against the sun's UV rays when exercising outside is necessary for skin cancer prevention.
Repeated sunburn is a strong risk factor for developing melanomas. If you're exercising, be sure to wear protective clothing, a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen that is at least SPF30+ (though SPF50+ is better!). It is important to maintain these habits even on cloudy days, as ultraviolet light is invisible and cannot be felt.
Those with physical characteristics that are risk factors for developing melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers, like a fair complexion, a large number of moles and freckles on the arms, face, neck and legs, red hair, and a family history of skin cancer, must stress sun protection.
Smoking and cancer risk
Smoking cigarettes is commonly connected to lung cancer. However, tobacco is related to several skin diseases. While tobacco smoking has no significant influence on an increased melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma risk, studies show that not smoking results in a decreased thickness of a melanoma tumour.
Alcohol and cancer risk
Alcohol consumption is a commonly enjoyed lifestyle and recreational activity in Australia, but it is important to recognise its risk to our health.
There is much controversy in the scientific community about the impact of drinking alcohol and developing melanoma. Rather, there seems to be a higher chance of developing squamous cell carcinoma or basal cell carcinoma. This is because UV radiation can cause mutations to your genes, and alcohol can interfere with our body's DNA repair, thereby causing cancer.
Limiting yourself to one drink a day for women and two drinks per day for men is a recommended compromise from recent studies.
Diet and cancer risk
It is important to eat healthily, and it's been known to scientists that the interactions between foods, rather than merely taking supplements, can cooperatively minimise the risk of skin diseases like cancer. Try to look for foods with antioxidants like vitamins A, C, D, and E, zinc, selenium, beta carotene (carotenoids), omega-3 fatty acids, lycopene and polyphenols, for greater protection against developing melanoma.
The same red pigment that protects the skin of a tomato from the sun may also protect yours. A British study found that after 10 weeks of eating lycopene-heavy foods, participants were 40 per cent less likely to be sunburned than the control group. So, don’t skimp on eating more red foods like tomatoes, watermelon, guava, papaya, apricots, pink grapefruit, and blood oranges.
Foods rich in omega-3, like salmon and albacore tuna, are known to also reduce skin cancer risk due to their anti-inflammatory properties. These fish are also rich in Vitamin D, which our skin produces in response to sun exposure. Statistics from a 2011 study by the Women’s Health Initiative in the United States have shown that Vitamin D intake can minimise the risk of developing melanoma in women with a history of non-melanoma skin cancers since it restores the Vitamin D destroyed by UV exposure.
Drinking lots of green tea has a similar effect, as it contains plant-based chemicals which have tumour-inhibiting qualities. Vitamin E similarly absorbs UV light, so eating almonds, spinach, and other nuts can help defend your skin from cancer.
Vitamin C is also toxic to cancer cells, so stock up on citrus and leafy green vegetables. Another good dietary habit is to keep up your zinc levels, as it assists in strengthening your immune system.
Coffee and cancer risk
Fortunately for those of us who enjoy a cup of coffee or two throughout the day, caffeine intake was found in some studies to decrease the risk of basal cell carcinoma. While effectiveness depends on the dose, caffeine induces a sort of 'cell death' for cancer cells. These polyphenols absorb ultraviolet damage and repair DNA. Researchers have discovered that consuming one to three cups of coffee daily decreases the risk of developing melanoma by 10%, with a 20% reduced risk found in people drinking four cups or more.
However, coffee needs to be present at the time of ultraviolet light exposure in order to be effective. Coffee at the beach, anyone?
Weakened immune systems
It will not come as a surprise that those with a weakened immune system will be more at risk of developing skin cancers like melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. This is due to the fact that cancer cells are able to grow faster and thus become more aggressive when the body's natural defence is lowered.
For example, post-organ transplant medications purposely weaken the immune system to encourage the body to accept the new organ. People with HIV or who are on corticosteroid drug treatment will also result in fewer white blood cells, increasing the risk of developing skin cancer.
Keeping ourselves safe
Adapting a combination of the aforementioned lifestyle information provided will hopefully enable you to carry on with your daily life while being sun-smart.