Skin cancer – why food can be an ally in preventing this common cancer

When former president Jimmy Carter was recently diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer, it was a reminder for all of us that taking care of the largest organ in our body, our skin, should not be overlooked.  What also should not be overlooked is what we eat. Nutrition may have the potential to influence whether we develop skin cancer and might be one step out of many that can protect us from having to face this disease.  Before we learn about nutrition’s possible role, let’s review more facts about this prevalent cancer.


Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, affecting almost one in five Americans.  It tends to appear on areas of the body that have repeated exposure to the sun, including the head, neck, face, ears, hands, forearms, shoulders, back, lower legs and feet.  Many skin cancers are both preventable and treatable.  There are several different forms skin cancer can take:

·         Basal cell carcinoma – About 90% of all skin cancers are this type making it the most common form.  Basal cells are located at the bottom of the outer skin layer and are responsible for the production of new skin cells.  It is easily treatable, rarely fatal and is caused by long-term exposure to the sun.

·         Squamous cell carcinoma – This is the second most common type of skin cancer.  Squamous cell is a form of cancer that develops in the cells of the outer layer of the skin.  If found early, it can be easily treated.  

Both basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers account for about 3.5 million new cases diagnosed each year in the United States. 

·         Malignant melanoma – Less than 5% of all skin cancers or around 73,000 cases will be diagnosed in 2015 making it the rarest form of skin cancer.  It is also the most serious form as it is responsible for most deaths.  If it is detected and removed early, the survival rate is 98%.  However, once it spreads or metastasizes to other areas of the body the survival rate drops to 62%. 

Who is most at risk

·         Family history of skin cancer

·         Fair skin

·         Frequent tanning or outdoor exposure to the sun

·         Having many moles, freckles, or birthmarks

·         Over the age of 40

·         Being in the sun a lot as a child

·         If you sunburn easily or have had numerous sunburns

·         Pre-cancerous skin lesions, such as actinic keratosis

·         Living in a sunny climate or high-altitude

·         Exposure to radiation

·         A weakened immune system including people with HIV/AIDS

Prevention is key

Prevention is key to decreasing the risk of developing skin cancer and the earlier in life you practice this, the greater the likelihood of avoiding it.  Follow these steps today to avert this potentially deadly cancer:

·         Use a broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher applied at least 30 minutes before going outdoors

·         Wear a broad-brimmed hat and cover up with clothing

·         Stay in the shade between 10 am and 4 pm when the sun’s rays are the strongest

·         Do not burn

·         Wear UV-blocking sunglasses

·         Avoid tanning and tanning beds

·         Keep newborns out of the sun

·         Examine your skin each month looking for new or changing moles

·         See a dermatologist for a yearly skin exam

Nutrition – another possible prevention practice

Some studies have shown positive results while others have more mixed outcomes on whether food plays a role in preventing or reducing the incidence of skin cancer.  However, we do know that certain foods and components of food do seem to have a protective part in hindering all types of skin cancer.  One protective part is antioxidants.  Antioxidants are chemicals within food that can prevent or slow cell damage.  Studies on animals suggest that antioxidants may help fight cancer in general and help prevent the spread of melanoma from one part of the body to another.  The table below lists different types of antioxidants and their food sources:


Other patterns of eating that appear to have some potential for a protective effect of reducing skin cancer include the following:

·         Follow a Mediterranean Diet – The Mediterranean Diet refers to a dietary pattern of countries surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea.  This diet traditionally consists of plant-based foods rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory potential and includes foods such as cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussel sprouts, turnips, bok choy, cauliflower, mustard greens) tomatoes, green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, romaine lettuce) citrus fruit, fresh herbs, wine and olive oil.  It also is rich in fish, shellfish and poultry.  Studies conducted looking into the Mediterranean diet has shown that those who consumed this way of eating did have a lower incidence of melanoma. 

·         Reduce red meat, processed meat and fat – The main culprit here is excessive intake of processed meat.  Processed meat includes sausage, bacon, luncheon meats, and hot dogs.  Red meat includes beef, lamb and pork.  Processed meat and fatty cuts of red meat have a high amount of fat which has been shown to increase oxidative stress, DNA damage and increase inflammatory cytokines in the skin.  Meat in general may contain several carcinogens such as nitrates and nitrites that may raise cancer risk. 

·         Include more Omega 3 fatty acids – The primary omega-3 fatty acids are EPA and DHA which seem to have a protective effect on cancer risk.  Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish such as tuna, salmon and mackerel.  Those who consume at least two servings a week of fish had the strongest rates of lowered cancer risk. 

What about taking a dietary supplement?

When it comes to preventing skin cancer or any type of cancer, most oncologists generally recommend getting your nutrients from eating food and not from a dietary supplement.  Studies have shown the reasons for this are:

·         Some dietary supplements may interfere with certain drugs or chemotherapy treatment in a negative manner

·         High doses of supplements can possibly increase cancer risk

·         There is little to no scientific evidence that supplements reduce cancer risk

·         There is insufficient government regulation of dietary supplements which can result in unsound advice being given to consumers

The best advice it to always inform and discuss with your oncologist about taking a dietary supplement before you do so.  Eating a nutritious diet is still your best ally on obtaining the nutrients your body needs to fight off cancer and to keep you and your immune system as healthy as possible.  Food contains components that are not found in dietary supplements such as phytochemicals that may lower your risk of cancer. In addition, nutrients and other components in whole foods are more balanced and work synergistically better within the body than do supplements.  Basically, dietary supplements were never meant to replace a healthful diet. 


Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian and an adjunct professor at Allen Community College, Burlingame, Kansas and Butler County Community College, Council Grove, Kansas; she teaches Basic Nutrition and Therapeutic Nutrition.  She is also a certified health and wellness coach, and a clinical dietitian for the Cotton O’Neil Medical Clinic in Osage City, Kansas where she does individualized nutrition counseling.  She writes Eat Well to Be well, a column about health and nutrition  and is a blog contributor for Dr. David B. Samadi at  Contact her, visit her website, or like “eat well 2 be well” on Facebook.