Common Cancer Prevention Habit is a Great Way to Start the Morning

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Prevention is key to maintaining good health. We take our fish oil pills for the heart and the brain. We exercise regularly to prevent loss of muscle and bone. And, we apply coffee to our skin to protect us from skin cancer. Wait a minute…WHAT?!

Okay, maybe that last one is fictitious, but according to a recent article published in the journal Cancer Research, researchers have found that coffee and other caffeinated beverage drinkers appear to benefit from their caffeine habit with protection from the most common type of skin cancer— basal cell carcinoma.

If during a clinic visit your doctor reveals to you that you have a skin cancer growing on your body, basal cell carcinoma is the one you want in comparison to the slightly more dangerous squamous cell carcinoma and the deadly melanoma.

Basal cell carcinomas can develop anywhere on the body, but typically appear where the sun has had the most exposure to the skin such as the face and neck. Basal cell carcinomas grow slow and can present the following signs:

• A sore that bleeds, heals and returns
• A pimple that doesn’t clear
• A persistent reddish patch of dry skin
• A hard, flat sunken growth that is white or yellow
• A waxy-feeling scar that can be flesh colored, whiter or yellow
• A pearl-shaped lump that’s skin-colored, pink, brown or red with a depressed center

About 8 out of every 10 skin cancers are basal cell carcinomas and are easily treatable with removal of the affected area.

Squamous cell carcinomas also commonly appear on sun-exposed face and neck regions, but can also develop on the lips, back, ears and genitals. Squamous cell carcinomas typically look like:

• An open sore that itches and bleeds that might heal, but then returns
• A hard and scaly or crusty reddish bump, patch or pearl-shaped growth
• A scaly patch on the lip that thickens

About 2 out of 10 skin cancers are squamous cell carcinomas and are slightly more dangerous than basal cell carcinomas because they tend to be more aggressive than basal cell cancers and are more likely to invade fatty tissues just beneath the skin and potentially spread to lymph nodes and/or distant parts of the body.

Melanoma is a third basic type of skin cancer and the one you do not want to hear from your doctor. It begins in melanocytes, the cells that produce the pigment melanin that colors the skin, hair, and eyes, as well as forms moles. While a melanoma can develop from a mole, most moles do not become a melanoma. However, melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer in comparison to basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas due to its invasive abilities and tendency to spread to lymph nodes and other areas such as the lungs, liver, bones and brain.

A normal mole is usually small, of one color, and circular or oval with a well-defined border. However, a melanoma has distinctive characteristics to it that should cause some alarm. These characteristics include:

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• An asymmetry where one half is unlike the other half
• A border that is irregular or poorly defined
• A color that varies from one part of the “mole” to another in shades of black, brown and tan or at times can range from blue to red to white.
• Typically, a diameter bigger than a pencil eraser, but can be smaller
• A mole that is changing in appearance

Melanoma accounts for less than 5% of skin cancers, but it does result in the large majority of skin cancer deaths. Recent statistics tell us that melanoma is literally a growing problem:

• One-in-50 Americans has a lifetime risk of developing melanoma.
• In 2009 nearly 63,000 were diagnosed with melanoma in the United States, resulting in approximately 8,650 deaths.
• The projected numbers (according to the National Cancer Institute) for 2012 are even higher with 76,250 diagnosis and 9,180 deaths.

While genetics does play a role in developing a skin cancer, prevention by avoiding prolonged and unprotected sun exposure is the best way to decrease the likelihood that you will develop a skin cancer. And, if what researchers are finding is true, it may be that there is a diet component to skin cancer as well that comes in a cup of our morning coffee.

By pooling together and analyzing data from the Nurses’ Health Study—a large and long-running study to aid in the investigation of factors influencing women’s health—and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study—an analogous study for men—researchers have found that by increasing the number of cups of caffeinated coffee (or other caffeinated beverages) that you drink, that it might lower your risk of developing basal cell carcinoma.

The two studies encompassed 112,897 individuals of which 22,786 developed basal cell skin cancer during a 20-plus year follow-up. What the researchers found was an inverse relationship between consumption of caffeine and the development of basal cell carcinoma. Decaffeinated coffee, on the other hand, did not demonstrate an inverse relationship with this type of skin cancer.

According to a press release issued by the American Association of Cancer Research:

“Our data indicate that the more caffeinated coffee you consume, the lower your risk of developing basal cell carcinoma,” said Jiali Han, Ph.D., associate professor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School in Boston and Harvard School of Public Health.

“I would not recommend increasing your coffee intake based on these data alone,” said Han. “However, our results add basal cell carcinoma to a list of conditions for which risk is decreased with increasing coffee consumption. This list includes conditions with serious negative health consequences such as Type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.”

Previous animal studies have suggested that caffeine can help prevent the development of squamous cell carcinoma. Unfortunately, however, the human study findings did not include an inverse relationship between caffeine consumption and squamous cell carcinoma or melanoma. Of the combined 112,897 participants in the analysis, 1,953 developed squamous cell carcinoma and 741 developed melanoma.

“It is possible that these numbers are insufficient for any association with coffee consumption to be seen,” said Han. “As the study participants are followed for a longer time, the number of cases of these conditions is likely to increase. We may be in a position in 10 years’ time to better address this issue.”

Image Source: Courtesy of MorgueFile

Reference: “Increased Caffeine Intake Is Associated with Reduced Risk of Basal Cell Carcinoma of the Skin” Cancer Research July 1, 2012 72; 3282; Fengu Song et al.

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