HCC study: seeking sun for vitamin D increases skin cancer risk

Vicky Agnew
MUSC Hollings Cancer Center

July 15, 2011

HCC study: seeking sun for vitamin D increases skin cancer risk

Findings highlight mixed messages about risks, benefits of sun exposure

CHARLESTON -- The media message about vitamin D, "the sunshine vitamin," is reaching the general public. Approximately one-third of people surveyed, including those at greatest risk for skin cancer, were aware of intentionally seeking the sun in hopes of increasing their body's production of vitamin D, and of these, two out of five were actually engaging in sun-seeking behavior to increase Vitamin D levels.

The study, led by Anthony Alberg, PhD, MPH, associate director for Cancer Prevention and Control at the Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, have been published in the July-August issue of Public Health Reports.

Key findings of the study of over 8,000 people:

• 30 percent of the people surveyed were aware that going into the sun unprotected leads to increased production of vitamin D.

• Of those who were aware that unprotected sun exposure increased the body's synthesis of vitamin D, 42 percent were actually engaging in sun-seeking to increase their body's vitamin D production. People who had a personal history of skin cancer were just as likely as those who did not to intentionally spend unprotected time in the sun for vitamin D.

"The conflicting messages emerging from the biomedical research community about vitamin D are a big controversy right now," Alberg said. "On the one hand, there is concern about the erosion of skin cancer prevention behaviors, particularly among those at high risk of skin cancer. On the other hand, there is concern that vitamin D levels in the population are on average too low."

Vitamin D has well-established benefits for bone health, helping to form and maintain strong bones. There are many other hypothesized health benefits of vitamin D that are still being tested, such as for hypertension, cancer, and several autoimmune diseases.

"We do not want people to increase their risk of developing skin cancer simply to increase their vitamin D levels," Alberg added. "Taking a vitamin D supplement provides a sensible alternative source of the 'sunshine vitamin.'"

About Hollings Cancer Center

Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina is a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center and the largest academic-based cancer program in South Carolina. The cancer center has more than $35M in cancer research funding and more than 200 people are currently participating on a cancer clinical trial at Hollings Cancer Center.

Hollings offers state-of-the-art diagnostic capabilities, therapies and surgical techniques and has multidisciplinary clinics that include surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation therapists, radiologists, pathologists, psychologists and many other specialists seeing patients under one roof. Multidisciplinary care is provided for most adult and pediatric cancers. For more information please visit www.hcc.musc.edu.

About MUSC

Founded in 1824 in Charleston, The Medical University of South Carolina is the oldest medical school in the South. Today, MUSC continues the tradition of excellence in education, research, and patient care. MUSC educates and trains more than 3,000 students and residents, and has nearly 11,000 employees, including 1,500 faculty members. As the largest non-federal employer in Charleston, the university and its affiliates have collective annual budgets in excess of $1.7 billion. MUSC operates a 750-bed medical center, which includes a nationally recognized Children's Hospital, the Ashley River Tower (cardiovascular, digestive disease, and surgical oncology), and a leading Institute of Psychiatry. For more information on academic information or clinical services, visit www.musc.edu or www.muschealth.com.