Golf Digest editors picks

Burned To A Crisp

If you play golf, there's a good chance you'll get skin cancer

Burned To A Crisp
July 2008

You read that right. We'd love to be able to tell you that all the damage you've done to your skin while playing golf without wearing sunscreen can be reversed. Some of it can, but the jarring reality is that one out of every five Americans (one in three Caucasians) will develop some form of skin cancer in their lifetime. Every dermatologist we spoke with thinks the odds are even worse for golfers. Want to know why? Hint: It's not simply because we might be out in the sun more than most Americans.

"I don't think it's ignorance, and I don't think it's inherent in being exposed to the sun longer," says dermatologist Dr. Seth Kates. "People just don't care."

Adds Dr. Michael Kaminer: "Some golfers, it's like they're going out of their way to get skin cancer. They come up with every excuse you can think of for not wearing sunscreen."

Harsh statements, but ones based on experience. Kates and Kaminer are not only skin doctors, they're golfers. Kaminer has a 4.6 USGA Handicap Index. Kates is a 7.1. As golf buddies in the Boston area, they know what it's like to play 36 holes in the summer sun, and they know what it's like to see a golfer come into the clubhouse after a round looking like someone just dunked his head in a boiling lobster pot.

They, and many other experts in the skin-care field we consulted, would love to educate golfers on the dangers of long-term sun exposure. So would we. Please read on.

What is skin cancer?
Statistically, it's the most common form of cancer in the United States. Skin cancer is the mutation of cells on the outer layers of your skin caused by a number of factors, including excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun, heredity, genetics, skin type and a weak immune system. Of these, sun exposure is believed to cause 90 percent of all cases. The three leading types are basal-cell carcinoma, squamous-cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma. Actinic keratosis (abnormal skin growths) and dysplastic nevi (atypical moles) aren't cancerous but are often precursors to cancer. See our photo chart (below) to help identify various skin blemishes.

skin cancer

Skin Photographs Courtesy of the Skin Cancer Foundation

Is skin cancer fatal?
It can be. Malignant melanomas take the lives of more than 8,000 Americans a year, or about 13.5 percent of the people diagnosed with the disease, the Skin Cancer Foundation reports. Other forms of skin cancer are rarely fatal, although squamous-cell carcinoma can metastasize and result in death. But the situation isn't bleak. If detected early, 99 percent of all skin cancers are curable.

In the case of melanoma, once the cancer reaches the lymph nodes, the survival rate drops to 15 percent.

I play golf at least twice a month. How likely is it that I have skin cancer?
There are no statistics that specifically target golfers, so we asked some dermatologists who have lots of golfers as patients to assess the risk level. All said it's likely a higher percentage of golfers have skin cancer than the 20 percent reported for the general U.S. population, but it's hard to say how significant the increase would be because many other activities and lifestyles include the four to six hours of sun exposure from a round of golf.

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