Mad dogs and men

July 06, 2004

THERE ARE Stetsons and safaris, straw skimmers and Panama porkpies. In a pinch, a plain old baseball cap will do nicely. Men's summer hats are making a comeback, according to the fashionable among us, and the resurgence comes none too soon. Forget being a fashion victim; the man without headgear faces far more serious consequences.

Recent studies show men over 40 lead women in skin cancer diagnoses by as much as a 2-to-1 margin. Their propensity to go through summer bare-headed is one of the reasons for this. Indeed, almost all of the reasons for the higher skin cancer rate in men lie in their behavior - men won't use sunscreen, won't cover themselves against the midday sun, won't pay attention to possible symptoms such as changing moles, and won't see a doctor regularly. When it comes to skin cancer, female vanity is an asset - women look after their appearance far more carefully than men.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, with about a million new U.S. cases each year. Last year, there were an estimated 54,200 cases of melanoma, skin cancer's most serious form. That's twice as many as reported 30 years ago, and it's growing about 5 percent each year, the fastest growth rate of any malignancy. Skin cancer's most common cause is exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays. Even indoor UV light from tanning booths can raise the cancer risk, according to the American Cancer Society. Nearly 10,000 people die from skin cancer each year. Yet if skin cancer is detected early, the survival rate is quite high.

Why won't men take reasonable precautions against the sun? Often, it can be traced to the gender's own vanities. Older men don't like slapping creams on their faces (it seems feminine), won't recognize that thinning hair is leaving their scalps vulnerable, or can't be bothered to wear long-sleeve shirts in hot weather.

They're also paying for sins of the past - the damage done when they were boys and spent long hours playing outdoors. Severe sunburns before age 18 significantly raise the risk of skin cancer later in life. So do a fair complexion; a family history of cancer; occupational exposure to coal tar, pitch, arsenic or radium; and the presence of multiple or atypical moles.

Here's a telling fact: A wife is more apt to detect a husband's skin cancer than a husband to notice skin cancer on himself or his wife. If that's not an endorsement of the benefits of marriage to men, we don't know what is. Of course, it can also be seen as proof of male knuckleheadedness, but others can make that case.

Smart men limit their exposure to the sun, use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 and preferably 30, wear hats and sunglasses outdoors and stay on the lookout for telltale symptoms such as moles that change in size or appearance. And when they find problems, they see their doctors right away. In other words, they act more like smart women.

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