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By MARILYNN MARCHIONE
Scientists are excited about a vitamin again. But unlike fads that sizzled and fizzled, the evidence this time is strong and keeps growing. If it bears out, it will challenge one of medicine's most fundamental beliefs: that people need to coat themselves with sunscreen whenever they're in the sun. Doing that may actually contribute to far more cancer deaths than it prevents, some researchers think.
The vitamin is D, nickname the "sunshine vitamin" because the skin makes it from ultraviolet rays. Sunscreen blocks its production, but dermatologists and. health agencies have long preached that such lotions are needed to prevent skin cancer. Now some scientists are questioning that advice. The reason is that vitamin D increasingly seems important for preventing and even treating many types of cancer. In the last three months alone, four separate studies found it helped protect against lymphoma and cancers of the prostate, lung and, ironically, the skin. The strongest evidence is for colon cancer.
Many people aren't getting enough vitamin D. It's hard to do from food and fortified milk alone, and supplements are problematic.
So the thinking is this: Even if too much sun leads to skin cancer, which is rarely deadly, too little sun may be worse. No one is suggesting that people fry on a beach. But many scientists believe that "safesun" - 15 minutes or so a few times a week without sunscreen - is not only possible but also helpful to health.
One is Dr. Edward Giovannucci, a Harvard University professor of medicine and nutrition who laid out his case in a keynote lecture at a recent American Association for Cancer Research meeting in Anaheim,Calif. His research suggests that vitamin D might help prevent 30 deaths for each one caused by skin cancer.
''I would challenge anyone to find an area or nutrient or any factor that has such consistent anti-cancer benefits as vitamin D", Giovannucci told the cancer scientists. ''The data are really quite remarkable."
The talk so impressed the American Cancer Society's chief epidemiologist, Dr. Michael Thun that the society is reviewing its sun protection guidelines. "There is now intriguing evidence that vitamin D may have a role in the prevention as well as treatment of certain cancers," Thun said.
Even some dermatologists may be coming around. "I find the evidence to be mounting and increasingly compelling," said Dr. Allan Halpern, dermatology chief at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, who advises several cancer groups.
The dilemma, he said, is a lack of consensus on how much vitamin D is needed or the best way to get it. No source is ideal. Even if sunshine were to be recommended, the amount needed would depend on the season, time of day, where a person lives, skin color and other factors. Thun and others worry that folks might overdo it.
"People tend to go overboard with even a hint of encouragement to get more sun exposure," Thun said, adding that he'd prefer people get more of the nutrient from food or pills.
But this is difficult. Vitamin D occurs naturally in salmon, tuna and other oily fish and is routinely added to milk. However, diet accounts for very little of the vitamin D circulating in blood, Giovannucci said.
Naples Daily News, Sunday, May 22, 2005
Scientists: Sunshine may help fight cancer
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