Can Coffee Decrease Your Risk of Skin Cancer?

With summer quickly approaching, everyone seems to be getting ready to head to the beach and tan his or her pale skin (and I am one of them).  However, with skin cancer on the rise, is it worth the risk to look a little darker?

Well if you are like me and like catching rays, then I have good news for you.  Studies have shown that drinking coffee helps prevent the most common type of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma (BCC).

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer, with nearly one million new cases diagnosed every year in the United States.   More than one out of every three new cancers are skin cancers, and the vast majority are BCC’s!

BCC’s are “abnormal, uncontrolled growths or lesions that arise in the skin’s basal cells, which line the deepest layer of the epidermis (the outermost layer of the skin),” according to the Skin Cancer Foundation’s definition.  It starts in the epidermis and then grows slowly and painlessly.  Basal cell skin cancer almost never spreads, but if left untreated, it may grow into surrounding areas and nearby tissues and bone.  Additionally, BCC can be highly disfiguring if allowed to grow.

The Skin Cancer Foundation has listed five warning signs of BCC on their website, which are listed below:

  1. An Open Sore – an open sore that bleeds, oozes, or crusts and remains open for a few weeks, only to heal up and then bleed again.  A persistent, non-healing sore is a very common sign of an early BCC.
  2. A Reddish Patch or Irritated Area – a reddish patch or irritated area frequently occurring on the face, chest, shoulders, arms, or legs.  Sometimes the patch crusts, and it may also itch.  At other times, it persists with no noticeable discomfort.
  3. A Shiny Bump or Nodule – a shiny bump or nodule that is pearly or translucent and is often pink, red, or white.  The bump can also be tan, black, or brown, especially in dark-haired people, and can be confused with a mole.
  4. A Pink Growth – a pink growth with a slightly elevated rolled border and a crushed indentation in the center.  As the growth slowly enlarges, tiny blood vessels may develop on the surface.
  5. A Scar-Like Area – a scar-like area that is white, yellow or waxy, and often has poorly defined borders; the skin itself appears shiny and taut.  This warning sign may indicate the presence of an invasive BCC that is larger than it appears to be on the surface.

Please note that only a trained physician, such as a specialist in diseases of the skin, can decide for sure.  If you observe any of the warning signs or some other worrisome change in your skin, consult your physician immediately.

Almost all BCC’s occur on parts of the body excessively exposed to sun especially the face, ears, neck, scalp, shoulders, and back.  However, in rare cases, tumors develop on unexposed areas.  BCC can develop in anyone that has a history of sun exposure, but people who are at the highest risk have fair skin, blond or red hair, and blue, green, or grey eyes.

The best way to prevent skin cancer is to reduce your exposure to sunlight.  You can also protect your skin by wearing hats, long-sleeved shirts, long skirts, or pants.  Another important thing to do is to always apply sunscreen.  You want to apply high-quality sunscreens with SPF ratings of at least 15 and you want to look for sunscreens that block both UVA and UVB light.

Additionally, there are more and more studies being conducted that show a significantly inverse association for coffee consumption and basal cell carcinoma.  During the 10th AACR International Conference on Frontiers in Cancer Prevention Research on October 22 to 25, 2011, a prospective study examined the risks of BCC, squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma in connection with coffee consumption and found a decreased risk for only BCC.  The data was taken from the Nurses’ Health Study (Brigham and Women’s Hospital) and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (Harvard School of Public Health).  In the Nurses’ Health Study, 72,921 participants were followed from June 1984 to June 2008.  In the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, 39,979 participants were followed from June 1986 to June 2008.  The researchers reported 25,480 cases of skin cancer!  Of those, 22,786 were BCC, 1,953 were SCC, and 741 were melanoma.

It was reported that the amount of coffee consumption was inversely associated with BCC risk.  Those who consumed the most amounts of cups of coffee (three cups or more) had the lowest risk, with a 20% reduction for women and a 9% reduction for men.

Researcher Fengju Song, Ph.D. in the department of dermatology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, stated, “Given the nearly 1 million new cases of BCC diagnosed each year in the United States, daily dietary factors with even small protective effects may have great public health impact.”’  He then goes on to say, “Our study indicates that coffee consumption may be an important option to help prevent BCC.”

Song said that they still did not completely understand coffee’s role in prevention, but researchers believe that it has something to do with caffeine since decaffeinated coffee did not have any effect on skin cancer risk.  And in more recent studies, we may be getting closer to knowing its’ exact role.

Allan Conney of the department of chemical biology at Rutgers University study supported the idea that coffee reduces the risk of skin cancer by helping kill off damaged cells that could otherwise turn into tumors.  Using mice that had been genetically modified to suppress a protein enzyme called ATR, Conney found that the mice were able to fend off cancer even when exposed to UVA light.  Previous studies had suggested that drinking a cup of coffee a day has the effect of suppressing ATR and triggering the die-off of cell harmed by UV rays.

In this study after 19 weeks of UVA light exposure, the genetically modified mice showed 69% fewer tumors and four times fewer invasive tumors than the control group.  However, the protective effects only went so far.  After 34 weeks of UV exposure, all the mice developed tumors.

Conney and his team were able to confirm their hypothesis that caffeine, when consumed or applied to the skin, works by inhibiting ATR.  He explains, “Caffeine might become a weapon in prevention because it inhibits ATR and also acts as a sunscreen and directly absorbs damaging UV light.”

Now if you drink coffee, do not think that you can stop wearing sunscreen and be protected from the sun’s harmful rays because that is not the case.  It is still important to apply sunscreen, wear protective clothing, and stay out of the sun if possible.  Just add coffee on top of these things to decrease your risk of BCC even more.

It is also important to go to your dermatologist regularly to make sure you do not have any suspicious or cancerous moles.  May 6 was Melanoma Monday so in honor of that day book an appointment with your skin specialist and make sure to take care of your skin!