By Martha Nance, M.D., medical director, Struthers Parkinson’s Center
The long-awaited long days of summer are here, and I head out to my garden, as do many of you (or to the lake, the jogging path, or even just the back porch), I am reminded to review the special measures that people with Parkinson’s disease need to take to maintain good skin health.
People with Parkinson’s disease have twice the risk of developing melanoma (a serious, potentially fatal form of skin cancer) as people who do not have Parkinson’s disease. In Caucasians, the risk of developing melanoma during a person’s lifetime is about 2 percent. In people with Parkinson’s disease, that risk doubles, up to about 4 percent. (Interestingly, the correlation also goes the other way: people who have had melanoma are more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease).
The good news for non-Caucasians is that the lifetime risk of developing melanoma is lower than in Caucasians (about 0.3 to 0.4 percent in Hispanics and Native Americans, and 0.1 percent in people of Asian or African descent). Unfortunately, there is no specific information about the risk of melanoma in people with Parkinson’s disease in those non-Caucasian groups, but we guess that they also have a higher risk than normal.
Scientists aren’t sure what the connection between Parkinson’s disease and melanoma is. Is it something about the diseases? Is it the medications that we use to treat Parkinson’s disease? We don’t have a satisfactory answer to that question, but since the association between the two conditions goes both ways, it seems likely that it has something to do with the diseases themselves.
What can YOU do to lower your risk of developing melanoma? We can’t make the Parkinson’s disease go away or change how much time you spent in the sun as a teenager, but you can protect your skin from the sun now and in the future. Some researchers think that intermittent sun exposure (sunburn) increases melanoma risk even more than chronic heavy sun exposure (as in farmers or construction workers).
People with Parkinson’s disease can develop many other skin conditions, some related to Parkinson’s disease, and some just related to age; basal cell carcinomas, actinic keratoses, squamous cell carcinomas, seborrhea, etc. Reducing sun exposure can also help to protect against some of these conditions, and an annual skin examination can help to detect them early. All of these skin conditions and lesions can be treated, so there is no reason to postpone seeing the doctor about them.
So, my recommendations for people with Parkinson’s disease are:
- Use sunscreen; avoid excessive sun exposure in general, and sunburn in particular
- If you have a worrisome spot—a “mole” that is growing, bleeding or painful—have your doctor or dermatologist (skin specialist) take a biopsy as soon as possible. Don’t wait!
- Have an annual skin exam, which includes the scalp and other areas that you can’t see
- Consider scheduling regular visits with a dermatologist; ask your Parkinson’s doctor for a referral
- Have fun in the sun this summer, but make sure your good health is “skin-deep!”