Fun in the Summer Sun? or F*** This, I’m Killing Myself.
Ahh, the pursuit of the tan. It’s the look that says “I spend my lazy summers at the Hamptons,” or “I ride my bicycle more than you and am therefore faster,” or maybe, “I just spent $34 at Hollywood Tans before the Bon Jovi concert.”Most people are aware of the connection between excessive tanning and skin cancer. As the throngs of people at the Jersey shore will attest, this danger is one the general population seems happy to bear.
I attended a cancer conference this month and saw a talk on the process of DNA repair. I don’t want to write a scary warning about your inevitable death from cancer a la the 10 o’clock news, but instead want to tell an amazing little story about our body. Get on the magic schoolbus kids, Mrs. Frizzle is taking us for a ride…
Our body is made of DNA, long sequences of 4 letters which code for stuff (take that explanation, biologists). When photons from the sun smash into our DNA, it breaks strands and causes all sorts of random mutations.
If we start with: ….ATACCGTACCGTTTAGTGTAAAAAAACTGAAT….
We end with something like:
Here is the amazing part: Millions of pieces of your DNA are damaged in a few hours’ of time in the sun, and your body will find and repair almost all of them. The current consensus is that cancer can occur when 5 or 6 of these mutations escape repair. Your body is finding millions of needles in billions of haystacks, and if it misses 5 unlucky mutations, cancer.
Not Impressed? It gets better. Remember that sunburn you got in Cabo? It turned red, hurt a little, and then the skin dried up and peeled off. Just some dry skin. Just chillin. Just peeling. Goin’ with the Cabo vibes. She looking at me? No? Him? Ahh, cool. Next time, babe.
That skin peeling is apoptosis, the scientific term which means your skin cells committed suicide. It’s pre-progammed cell death; your cells decided they were too mutated to carry on and would rather die than turn your back into a field of polyps. Even the most leather-backed grandma in Ocean City should get a chill down her leathery spine to know her body is killing part to save the whole.
Billions of cells purposefully killed themselves for the sake of your vanity.
Maybe this year you will be nice enough to send them a Christmas card.