Yes! A dose of sun CAN protect you and it IS good for you too
Says yet another British Oncologist!
By PROFESSOR ANGUS DALGLEISH
My message is: don't be afraid of the sun - enjoy it. Soak up the sun: Your skin needs vitamin D
As a fair-haired Scot with freckles and pale skin I'm a classic case to be more at risk from melanoma. Getting quite badly sunburned on my nose years ago in Spain has pushed my risk up further.
To say I've been wary about the sun is an understatement - I specialise in treating patients with advanced melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer.
I was also in Australia 30 years ago at the start of the Slip-Slop-Slap campaign to warn people to keep out of the sun, and for seven years I never went swimming without being covered in sun lotion and wearing a T-shirt.
But now I believe that rather than reducing the risk of skin cancer, following these sun-avoidance guidelines could actually raise it. That's because we need sun on our skin to make vitamin D - ironically these campaigns may have made millions chronically short of it and put them at risk. t rather than reducing the risk of skin cancer, following these sun-avoidance guidelines could actually raise it. That's because we need sun on our skin to make vitamin D - ironically these campaigns may have made millions chronically short of it and put them at risk. The sun's effects might even protect against melanoma (as reported in the Mail earlier this month).
I first became interested in vitamin D and its cancer fighting potential about 15 years ago, when working in a team testing it as a treatment for breast cancer. It proved very effective, but the project was abandoned for technical reasons.
I thought this was a mistake because it had become clear that vitamin D can target tumours in many different ways, including speeding up the death of tumour cells. Later, while researching cancer vaccines, I found good vitamin D levels in patients triggered a stronger immune response - important because it makes the vaccine more potent.
Then, a couple of years ago, researchers at Leeds University made the surprising discovery that a very low level of vitamin D was a major risk factor for melanoma.
Get out in the sun: Earlier reports on the benefit of the sun
This flew in the face of the idea that it was too much sun that pushed up your melanoma risk.
Lots of sun actually means lots of vitamin D - and potentially a lower risk of melanoma.
I immediately began to test my patients' vitamin D levels and was amazed - I'd expected maybe 30 per cent would be deficient; it was closer to 90 per cent. That changed everything for me.
I now test all my new melanoma patients for vitamin D - if their levels are low, I give them a supplement. The big question is: does this improve their survival rates? We don't know yet - we've only been doing it for about six months - but I think this is a sensible response to the evidence so far. As for the rest of us, we should probably spend more time in the sun. Young girls have developed rickets because their well-meaning parents slathered them in sunscreen from birth whenever they went out.
I'm pleased that these days the official advice has changed and a few minutes in the sun each day without sunscreen is now recommended. But this is a long way from acknowledging how vital it is to have a healthy level of vitamin D.
Research shows that a large percentage of people in the UK are deficient in vitamin D partly because we can't make any from the sun for about six months of the year. As well as checking the vitamin D levels of my patients I also check my own occasionally and take a supplement of 1000 international units about three times a week.
Meanwhile, I'd like to see all other cancer units automatically checking their patients' blood levels. It's cheap and quick and I guarantee they would be amazed at just how low many were
So how much sun exposure is enough? And if we give supplements, how much do people need?
Finding the right answers could bring big benefits for very little cost. In the meantime, my own approach has changed dramatically since those early days. If I'm playing tennis or skiing I'll only use sun cream on my face or arms in very hot or mid-day sun.
Going slightly pink is OK (although at the first tingling sign that I've been too exposed, I'll put on some block, and I always protect my nose where it was burnt).
But my message is: don't be afraid of the sun - enjoy it. Soak up the sun: Your skin needs vitamin D