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Archives, Media and Science, Tamara Abou-Antoun

Beauty and the Beast: A Mere Mutation

By Thamara Abou-Antoun

LAU Tribune contributor

So it’s almost summer time and you can feel the tranquilizing Mediterranean breeze through your hair as you lay down to relax on a beach bed. The gentle salt air is refreshing, the sound of the waves therapeutic and the warmth of the sun rays so indulging. It simply feels like heaven –except it’s not.

Deep down in the cellular division layer of your skin everything but heaven exists.  Your proliferating cells are cycling through their normal routes of the cell cycle as they have been doing ever since your existence, with only one exception now: One of them has just been bombarded with a UV ray that has mutated one of its genes.

If unrepaired, this cell will likely continue to divide, giving rise to aberrant daughter cells, which in turn divide and produce more of the same cells, all of which have a significantly higher chance of accumulating more mutations that can lead to tumorigenic transformation.

The reason you get this stunning golden-tan after exposure to the sun is because you have protective cells deep within your epidermis called melanocytes. These absorb the UV rays to spare damage to other cells. Absorption of the UV rays by melanocytes makes them produce the dark brown pigment, melanin, which gives you the tanned appearance.

Generally speaking, people who have a darker complexion literally have more melanin produced from their melanocytes and therefore are considered to have a reduced risk of developing skin cancer compared to individuals who have a lighter complexion.

But no one is immune from the devastating, life-threatening disease. Melanoma that may arise after a tumorigenic mutation occurs in one’s dividing cells if they subject themselves to extensive exposure to the sun.

As it happens to be, only a single mutation is sufficient to induce melanoma –the deadliest of skin malignancies that has a tendency to metastasis or spread to other body regions.

Melanoma risk increases with lifetime sun exposure. Even among individuals that tan well, life-time exposure to the sun is still a significant risk factor. The groups that are at a greater risk are individuals with a fair or light complexion who tend to develop blisters (fluid-filled bumps on the skin) after sun-exposure or those with a family history of melanoma.

How can you tell if you’re at risk? Ask yourself the following questions: Do I have light skin? Does my skin turn red, not brown, blister, and exhibit extensive freckling every time I get sun-burned? Do I have blond or red hair, blue or grey eyes and lots of freckles? Do I have two or more first-degree relatives (parents, brothers, sisters, and children) who are diagnosed with melanoma? Do I have first-degree relatives diagnosed with more than one melanoma? Do I have more than one irregular mole that is large and does not have a confined, circular border or a unified color?

Pay close attention to moles you already have or have just developed and watch it carefully to see whether it changes in size, color, shape or elevation over time. In such cases, it is most likely to be melanoma and must be checked out by your physician immediately.

I’m sure you are all thinking now that if the sun is so dangerous, fine then, I’ll simply get my breath-taking, golden- tan from the sun-tanning beds. Think again. Sun-tanning booths or lamps are merely but an artificial source of UV radiation, given in an enormous dose within a very short period of time (ten minutes), so they are not safe at all.

In fact, in the Western world, you are required to sign an agreement before using the sun-tanning booths, disclosing that “the risk of skin cancer is greatly increased by using sunlamps and tanning booths before the age of 30.” In addition, they make you sign the agreement that you will not hold the sun-tanning parlor responsible for any type of skin cancer that you develop after using their facility.

Be safe and wise this summer during your outdoor adventures and activities. To prevent the risk of developing melanoma or any other skin cancer, try to limit sun exposure, particularly at mid-day. Stay in the shade when outdoors, wear protective clothing, and use sunscreens as directed. Tanning parlors and sun booths should not be used at all.

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About LAU Tribune

The official student newspaper at the Lebanese American University

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