The Foods that Can Fight Skin Cancer

May is National Melanoma and Skin Cancer Awareness Month and today — May 4 — is Melanoma Monday. Right now, that might not mean anything to you. Four months ago, it did not mean anything to me, either.

Then, in December 2014, I noticed a very dark mole — about the size of a sesame seed — on my right thigh. It was not bleeding, it was not an odd shape, it was just really dark. I decided to see my favorite dermatologist and had it removed. About 3 weeks later, I received a call from my doctor. That small mole, that itty-bitty mole, was malignant melanoma. Never in my wildest dreams did I think skin cancer, let alone malignant melanoma, would happen to me. This isn't just any kind of skin cancer; malignant melanoma is the type of skin cancer that can travel to many other parts of your body and cause other types of cancer.

According to the National Skin Cancer Foundation: "Skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells. It occurs when unrepaired DNA damage to skin cells (most often caused by ultraviolet radiation from sunshine or tanning beds) triggers mutations, or genetic defects, that lead the skin cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumors."

Did you know skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States with more than 2 million people diagnosed annually? Roughly 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. Each year, there are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incidences of cancers of the breast, prostate, lung and colon. Melanoma is one of the most aggressive and deadliest forms of skin cancer, resulting in more than 75 percent of all skin cancer deaths.

During the summer, you probably stock up on sunscreen, sunglasses, hats and cover-ups to protect your skin from the sun. But did you know another way to battle the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays can be found right in the produce aisle of your supermarket?

As it turns out, watermelon, ruby red grapefruit and cooked tomatoes are all rich in lycopene. This powerful antioxidant found in reddish-colored fruits tends to act as a natural sunscreen, providing an SPF of 3 or 4 from the inside out. It actually protects skin cells from the sun's burning rays, which can lead to premature aging and even skin cancer. Lycopene replenishes skin cells as well. In addition, lycopene helps your skin act as a natural filter, allowing enough sunlight through for your body to produce vitamin D.

Besides helping to prevent sunburns, lycopene can also help prevent wrinkles, by strengthening the elasticity of skin tissues while keeping them from losing their tension.

To increase lycopene absorption from food, I always recommend serving it with a bit of oil, such as salad dressing or olive oil. My other favorite picks for lycopene include cooked tomato products, such as tomato soup, tomato juice, spaghetti sauce and canned tomato sauce. With any canned or jarred product, aim for 5 percent of the daily value (DV) or less for sodium content per serving or choose a no-sodium-added option. 

As for me, I was lucky. They found my malignant melanoma early enough for it to be treated with surgery. Along with skin checks every six months, I have promised to take better care of my skin by wearing at least 30 SPF sunscreen at all times, staying out of the tanning bed and increasing my consumption of lycopene-rich foods to help keep my skin cells plump and happy. I hope you do, too.


Skin-Savvy Summer Salad

Recipe by Anne Cundiff, RD, LD, FAND

Ingredients

  • 4 cups cubed seedless watermelon
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • Freshly ground salt and pepper, to taste
  • ¾ cup crumbled reduced-fat feta cheese
  • ¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh basil

Directions

  1. Place watermelon cubes in large bowl. Whisk olive oil, lime juice and vinegar in small bowl and pour over watermelon. Toss to coat. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  2. Gently stir in feta and basil. Serve salad immediately. Serves 8.
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Anne Cundiff
Anne Elizabeth Cundiff, RD, LD, FAND, is a retail dietitian in Iowa, author of "I’m a Registered Dietitian ... Now What?" and host of Conversations with Anne Elizabeth podcast. Read her blog, Nutritional Noshes, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram