It just wouldn’t go away. The small pearly bump near the bridge of my nose had been there for what seemed like months, and it showed no signs of disappearing. I might have ignored it except that it would occasionally bleed and then form a scab—and it would never fully heal.
My family doctor said it didn’t look like skin cancer and assured me that it was probably nothing, then proceeded to freeze the area with liquid nitrogen. After six months it still hadn’t cleared up, so I went back to see my doctor and he froze it again. It wasn’t until a year later that I decided to listen to my gut instead of my doctor and made an appointment with a dermatologist. She didn’t think it looked like skin cancer, either, but this time I insisted on getting a biopsy.
I had good reason. For starters, I grew up in Southern California and spent my summers basking in the sun slathered in baby oil. Never mind the agonizing sunburns that would follow—it was simply the cool thing to do. In fact, during the off-season I’d “sunbathe” under a sunlamp in my bedroom and sometimes fall asleep, which subsequently led to a couple of trips to the doctor for second-degree burns. And though I didn’t inherit my dad’s blue eyes or light brown hair, I did inherit a family history of skin cancer: My dad was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma in his mid-thirties. And now, with biopsy results in hand, the doctor says I have it too.
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, with more than 1 million new cases diagnosed each year. By age 65, nearly half of us will have weathered at least one case of it. The fact that I had the most common and least dangerous type—basal cell—brought me little comfort. Instead I was petrified, thinking about how my father had looked at my age, his complexion disfigured with blotches, scabs, and scars caused by numerous biopsies and treatments. As the dermatologist explained my treatment options, I silently prayed my fate would be different.
None of us, of course, can undo the damage wrought in our sun-worshipping youth. But it turns out there is a lot we can do to prevent further harm. And recent research underscores the need to take skin cancer prevention seriously: For reasons that researchers don’t fully understand, having skin cancer—even the less dangerous non-melanoma forms—seems to raise the risk of breast, lung, liver, and uterine cancers.
“Some people are genetically more cancer prone,” says Howard Murad, a Los Angeles dermatologist and author of Wrinkle-Free Forever: The 5-Minute 5-Week Dermatologist’s Program. “Having one kind increases the likelihood of developing another.”
The first line of defense against skin cancer, we know by now, is to protect your skin from the sun. Dermatologists recommend wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher every day, avoiding midday sun whenever possible, and covering up with long-sleeved clothing and hats.
But new research is showing that the foods you eat and the supplements you take can also lower your risk. Here’s how it works: The skin suffers oxidative stress when it’s exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, whether it comes from sunlight or a tanning bed. UV light creates free radicals that snatch electrons from other molecules, making them unstable. This process can damage DNA and suppress the immune system, potentially promoting the growth of skin cancer. Fortunately, there’s increasing evidence that antioxidants in supplements and food can counteract this process.
At this point, most of the research consists of animal and laboratory studies, but the results are encouraging enough that some dermatologists are counseling their patients to change their diets. “If we can mitigate sun damage with supplements and antioxidant-rich foods, we’re way ahead of the game,” says Murad.
Here’s what you need to know to prevent skin cancer from the inside out:
Brighten Up Your Plate
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, a plant-heavy diet rich in antioxidants can decrease your chances of all types of cancer—skin cancer included—by 20 percent. Foods that are especially rich in antioxidants (and natural carotenoids, plant pigments with powerful antioxidant effects) include brightly colored fruits and vegetables like grapes, oranges, broccoli, tomatoes, carrots, and greens. Spices such as ginger and turmeric also provide antioxidants, as do whole grains.
What to do: Aim for five to nine servings per day of colorful fruits and vegetables. (Tip: Starting at breakfast makes meeting the quota easier; 100 percent fruit or vegetable juices count.)
Put Pomegranates to Work
This fruit deserves an especially prominent place in your anticancer arsenal; a recent Norwegian study found that it (along with walnuts) contains more antioxidants than any other fruit or veggie.
What’s more, clinical studies have shown that pomegranate extract can even boost the effects of sunscreen. In one, led by dermatologist Murad, volunteers who took pomegranate supplements raised the SPF level of their sunscreen by as much as 23 percent.
What to do: Take one 15-milligram pomegranate tablet daily; a standardized extract is best. And eat fresh pomegranates whenever you can, too.
Go Easy on Animal Fats
Clinical trials have shown that a diet low in animal fat can reduce your chances of developing the most common forms of skin cancer. One possible mechanism: animal fat may suppress the immune system’s anti-cancer capabilities.
What to do: Choose lean cuts of meat and low- or nonfat dairy products; cut the skin off poultry before you eat it; as often as possible, focus your dinners around beans and vegetables instead of meat.
Make Teatime a Habit
Green, black, and white teas all contain polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that help protect skin against the adverse effects of sun damage.
What to do: Tea can be enjoyed as a beverage, taken as a supplement (often in a dose of about 300 mg per day), or smoothed on as an ingredient in skin creams (look for it among the top three ingredients on the label).
Get Help from Plants
Recent studies, including one clinical trial, show that Pycnogenol, a standardized extract of the bark of the French maritime pine tree, is also a risk reducer. “Pycnogenol binds to collagen and elastin and protects them from degradation caused by free radicals,” says Frank Schonlau, director of scientific communications for Horphag Research, the Geneva, Switzerland-based developer of the supplement.
One remedy I rely on in my own prevention program is ginkgo biloba. It contains a cocktail of ingredients, including genistein, which some research suggests may reduce UV-induced oxidative stress and inhibit DNA damage.
What to do: Pycnogenol’s makers recommend 50 to 60 mg per day for women, 70 to 100 for men. There’s no standard dosage for ginkgo, as the
research is preliminary; I take 60 mg of standardized leaf extract daily.
Studies show that antioxidant vitamins C and E—applied to the skin or taken internally—may protect against skin cancer by neutralizing free radicals and protecting and enhancing the skin’s immune system. “Many skin care products contain antioxidants, and ideally vitamin C should be in the top six ingredients,” says Shari Lieberman, a nutrition scientist and author of The Real Vitamin & Mineral Book.
What to do: Use vitamin C-rich skin care products; try a dose of 500 mg of C and 400 international units of E.