Why runners are so susceptible to skin cancers

There are few downsides to being a runner, but one of them is that you are in the high risk category for skin cancer. Sorry to put a downer on your enthusiasm for getting fit - or staying fit - in 2015, but at this time of year it's important to know. Especially given a recent NSW Cancer Institute study that found that more people than ever are forgetting to apply sunscreen.

A couple of months ago I required the removal of basal and squamous cell carcinomas on my forehead, chest and the back of one hand. Basal cell carcinoma happens most often on parts of the skin that get frequent exposure to the sun. The skin cancer is less serious than melanoma, but still of concern. The experience made me feel mortal - I'm actually looking forward to going back in three months for a further checkup. Having grown up in Queensland and spent a good portion of my life outdoors, I'm a prime candidate for skin cancers to occur.

More than a mere Hugh and cry

Actor and keen athlete Hugh Jackman made an impassioned plea to his fans last May, having had basel cell carcinomas removed from his face. Jackman's wife Deborra-Lee Furness had urged him to get the spots checked out by a dermatologist. "Please don't be foolish like me. Get yourself checked. And use sunscreen!" Jackman tweeted.

An added problem for runners is that sweating through physical exercise increases the risk of sunburn by raising the photosensitivity of the skin. 

A study by the dermatology department of the University Hospital Tuebingen in Germany even found that high-intensity exercise depleted the immune system, thereby increasing runners' susceptibility to skin cancers and melanoma. This finding is contentious, and Katie Clift of the Queensland Cancer Council says there is not enough reliable evidence to prove a link between high-intensity training and a depleting immune system.

"From what our researchers have seen, it tends to relate more to skin infections than skin cancer," she says.

Not disputed, however, is that sun exposure is the most common environmental risk factor for melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer and the fourth most common cancer in NSW. Men are more susceptible, with a 2007 study by the NSW Cancer Institute finding males were 1.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with melanoma and 3.3 times more likely to die from melanoma compared with females.

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Anywhere, anytime

Melanoma can appear at any age and on any area of the body – not only those exposed to the sun. People with fair skin, skin that burns easily, the presence of many moles, and a family history of skin cancer are at greater risk.

The running community has grown massively in recent years. A report on sport and active recreation in Australia in 2012 found that running as a choice of sport had increased 100 per cent since 2005.

That's a lot more people regularly exposing themselves to the sun than even seven years prior.

Here's a guide for runners from the Queensland Cancer Council on how best to minimise your risk of skin cancer:

  • Sun protection is required whenever the UV Index is three or above, so it's best to run when the UV is below that mark. Runners can download for real-time UV levels anywhere in Australia.
  • Runners should reapply sunscreen every two hours for best protection, and be aware of sweating the sunscreen off. If you sweat a lot while running, reapply more frequently.
  • Runners should apply one teaspoon per limb to exposed skin. As a minimum, use SPF30 broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen.
  • Apply sunscreen before you get dressed to run, especially on race days. This allows for better coverage and penetration. It'll also reduce the chances of you forgetting to apply it altogether due to pre-race excitement or nerves.
  • Sunscreen isn't a suit of armour – extended periods of sun exposure require additional methods of sun protection, such as a hat and sunglasses.
  • New performance materials mean that some longer-sleeved shirts can be cooler to run in and draw sweat away from the body.

Clift says early detection is vital to improving skin cancer survival rates. "It is imperative to get to know your own skin," she says. "If you notice a new spot or lesion, or a spot or lesion change in shape, colour or size, visit your GP immediately."

What sun-safe running tips do you swear by?

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