Screen time

An effort to get athletes to protect their skin

Summer 2016

To 20-year-old Erik Olson, the little pink lesion on his shoulder was no big deal.  Probably just a pimple, he thought. But his girlfriend, Jessica Tonn, who first noticed it, was insistent he get it checked out.

It was the summer of 2012, and Olson and Tonn had just returned from a run — pretty much a daily event for the two Stanford track and field athletes. As usual, Olson was shirtless. By his own account, he had trained every day for six years without a shirt or sunscreen on his back. The blue-eyed blond would lather up his nose and ears to prevent a burn, but his deep mahogany back was his “street cred” in the distance-running community. He’d achieved that tan through relentless training.

A biopsy showed that Olson had melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Surgery removed the tumor, and examination of his lymph nodes showed it hadn’t yet metastasized. He knew he’d been fortunate, and when he returned to training, Olson was religious about wearing shirts and sunscreen.

Melanoma is rare for people in their 20s, but playing outdoor sports increases the risk. The average NCAA outdoor athlete spends four hours a day, 10 months per year practicing and competing in the sun. This intense, often year-round, training increases risk for sunburns, accelerated skin aging and skin cancer. Moreover, sweating increases the skin’s susceptibility to UV radiation damage.

Yet 43 percent of student-athletes report never using sunscreen, and only 8 percent use it daily, according to data gathered by Stanford’s SUNSPORT program — a joint effort of the Athletic Department, Dermatology Department and Cancer Institute.

How big is the risk from extensive sun exposure? SUNSPORT members are working to quantify it, and to take measures to reduce it.

The program, developed in 2012, conducts longitudinal research through annual surveys of Stanford’s nearly 900 student-athletes’ sun-exposure and skin-protection behaviors. SUNSPORT (Stanford University Network for Sun Protection, Organization, Research and Teamwork) also provides annual skin screening for athletes, educational talks to teams and in-depth presentations on sun damage and skin protection for coaches and athletic trainers.

“The education and treatment provided by our dermatologists make an impact, but we see student-athletes’ habits really change when they receive consistent reinforcement from coaches and athletic trainers,” says Susan Swetter, MD, professor of dermatology, director of Stanford’s Pigmented Lesion and Melanoma Program, and a SUNSPORT founder.

“SUNSPORT is a part of our effort to support the well-being of Stanford’s student-athletes,” says Lindsy Donnelly, athletic trainer for the women’s softball and soccer teams. 

And it seems to be working. The year after SUNSPORT launched, the Athletic Department exhausted its annual sunscreen stock and had to resupply.

The softball team now carries out a playful ritual before every practice — the “sunscreen toss-around.” One player grabs a bottle of sunscreen and applies it to her exposed arms, face and neck. When done, she flips it to the closest teammate, who repeats the process until the whole team is covered.

Associate professor of dermatology Kristin Nord, MD, spreads SUNSPORT’s message to the greater Stanford community, including summer youth athletic camps. “Stanford student-athletes are fantastic role models and we hope younger athletes will follow their example of healthy skin protection habits,” she says.

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Michael Claeys

Michael Claeys is the senior communications manager at the Stanford Cancer Institute.

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