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February 1995

Sunlight Exposure, Pigmentary Factors, and Risk of Nonmelanocytic Skin Cancer: I. Basal Cell Carcinoma

Author Affiliations

From the British Columbia Cancer Agency, Vancouver (Mssrs Gallagher, Bajdik, and Threlfall and Drs Coldman and McLean); Laboratory Centre for Disease Control, Health Canada, Health Protection Branch, Tunney's Pasture, Ottawa, Ontario (Dr Hill); Alberta Cancer Board, Division of Epidemiology and Preventive Oncology, Edmonton, (Dr Fincham); Department of Health Care and Epidemiology (Mr Gallagher), and Division of Dermatology (Mr Gallagher and Dr McLean), Faculty of Medicine, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Arch Dermatol. 1995;131(2):157-163. doi:10.1001/archderm.1995.01690140041006

Background and Design:  Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) of the skin is the most common neoplasm in white populations, and solar radiation is generally accepted to be the dominant environmental risk factor for this disease. However, little information is available on the nature of the relationship between BCC and sunlight. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the nature of the relationship between sunlight exposure, pigmentary factors, and BCC of the skin. A population-based case-control study of 226 male patients with BCC diagnosed from January 1, 1983, through December 31, 1984, and 406 randomly selected male control subjects was conducted in Alberta, Canada. The study was conducted using a standardized questionnaire, administered in person by trained interviewers. Data were analyzed using conditional logistic regression methods.

Results:  After controlling for other host and pigmentary factors, the risk of BCC was increased in subjects with light skin color and those who freckled in childhood. A history of severe sunburn in childhood also increased risk. Subjects of southern European ethnic origin were at significantly lower risk of BCC. Surprisingly, no association was seen between mean annual cumulative summer sunlight exposure and risk of BCC. A significantly increased risk of BCC was seen in subjects with increased recreational sunlight exposure in adolescence and childhood (age, 0 to 19 years), although an inverse relationship was seen with lifetime recreation exposure. The relationship with childhood sun exposure was most pronounced among sun-sensitive subjects whose skin tended to burn rather than tan in the sun.

Conclusions:  The lack of association between cumulative sun exposure and BCC contradicts conventional wisdom about the cause of this tumor, and the increased risk with sun exposure at age 0 to 19 years suggests that childhood and adolescence may be critical periods for establishing adult risk for BCC.(Arch Dermatol. 1995;131:157-163)

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