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Tuesday, November 21, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Higher skin cancer risk for marathon runners?

The Associated Press

CHICAGO — White marathon runners seem to face an increased risk of skin cancer because of long sun exposure, Austrian researchers report.

The research team, all dermatologists at the Medical University of Graz, Austria, grew interested because they had treated eight ultramarathon runners with skin cancer over a 10-year period.

"We were concerned by this observation because all of us are enthusiastic runners and two of us ... regularly participate in marathons," the authors wrote in Monday's Archives of Dermatology.

They recruited 210 marathon runners for their study and matched them for age and sex with 210 other people they signed up at five recreation centers in Austria. All 420 people were screened by a dermatologist.

The marathon runners had more abnormal moles and lesions, and 24 were referred for surgical treatment, while there were 14 treatment referrals among the nonmarathoners.

The highest rate of referral for treatment, 19 percent, was among the marathoners who trained the most, more than 43.5 miles a week.

The results of the marathoners who were referred for treatment were not available. None of the lesions in either group looked like melanoma, a more serious but less common form of skin cancer.

Since the research was on white marathoners, it's unclear if the findings would apply to blacks, who are less prone to skin cancer than whites.

"Personally, I recommend sunscreen use for everybody," said Dr. Scott Phillips, a Chicago dermatologist.

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Fifty-six percent of the runners reported wearing sunscreen regularly.

Study co-author Dr. Christina Ambros-Rudolph said most marathoners are unaware of the risk to their skin, and even the running researchers found it "good to be reminded to keep wearing the right gear and use sunscreen."

Runners can lower their risk by training during morning or evening hours and wearing water-resistant sunscreen, said Phillips, who has run 37 marathons.

Running clothing made of new fabrics that screen harmful ultraviolet rays also can help, but most runners race with lots of skin exposed.

In their report, the researchers cite other studies that have shown suppressed immunity in endurance athletes, caused by repeated tissue damage. Weakened immune systems could leave the marathoners more vulnerable to skin cancer, they speculated.

However, other experts, such as David Nieman, of Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., who has documented suppressed immunity in marathon runners, said that link is just a guess.

"There's just no data to indicate there's a relationship between the immune changes that occur and cancer risk," Nieman said.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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