Note: For the fifth year in a row, I am serving as Chief Tournament Physician of the Family Circle Cup. Each day of the tournament, I am writing an article for The Post and Courier and Family Circle Cup.

The weather has been mostly wonderful this week, with cool temperatures and sunny skies. But the sun also poses a health challenge. Most spectators watching the matches realize the risk of sun exposure for an entire afternoon and can take appropriate prevention measures, such as sunscreen and hats. Unfortunately tennis players often don’t realize or actually ignore the same risks. “Sun protection can be a major challenge for athletes ” says Dr. Diana Antonovich, an assistant professor of dermatology at MUSC.

Antonovich points out that skin cancer is the most common form of cancer overall. The single greatest risk factor for skin cancer is excess sun exposure. And yet athletes often avoid simple measures to prevent problems. “It can be particularly difficult for athletes to protect themselves, as many routine measures are more impractical and in some instances impossible for an athlete” she explains.

Players should avoid playing when ultraviolet radiation is highest, if possible.

There are three lines of defense against skin cancer, and all are potentially more challenging in pro athletes. The first is avoidance. This includes avoidance of mid-day sun, when the sun’s rays are the strongest and seeking shade. The players have little control over when their tournament matches are scheduled, but they do have some control over when they practice. Ideally early morning or late afternoon is better for decreasing sun exposure. “A good rule of thumb is to avoid being in the sun when your shadow is shorter than you,” Antonovich suggests. And if practices and matches must occur during very sunny days, players should seek shade between games and sets. Umbrella covered court side seating is a simple measure.  Tweet this quote.

The second defense is covering up your body whenever possible. Players should wear clothing that blocks the sun exposure to skin, such as hats, sunglasses, and even long-sleeve tops, during practice and especially when outside for other activities. Players can completely control their exposure to UV radiation when doing interviews and outdoor activities other than tennis. And even during matches, they can wear protective clothing that is specially manufactured to be lightweight and breathable while offering more coverage.

The final line of defense, as most people know, is sunscreen. “Due to the difficulties with avoidance and covering up, sunscreen might be the first line of defense for many athletes,” Antonovich notes. Commom complaints she has heard from athletes regarding suncreen are that sunscreen getting in their eyes, the players feeling hotter wearing sunscreen, and even that it interferes with sweating. She emphasizes that there are some sunscreens that are waterproof that are less likely to get into the players’ eyes. And she also notes that athletes frequently forget to protect their lips. She recommends using a lip balm with sunscreen, which should be frequently reapplied. “Skin cancer of the lip is more dangerous and can be harder to treat than those on other sites.”

Finally, with the challenges players face trying to avoid sun exposure, they need to be especially careful with any new skin lesion. “The key is early detection. Have any suspicious lesion checked. It doesn’t have to be large or ugly to be cancer,” she states.

With several easily adoptable measures and extra vigilance having questionable skin lesions evaluated, spectators and fans alike can effectively decrease the risk of skin cancer.

Read my daily posts from the 2011 Family Circle Cup!

Day 1: Tennis players among world’s elite athletes
Day 2: Do our clay courts decrease injuries?
Day 3: What’s on the menu for pro tennis players?
Day 4: Best Tennis Town in America
Day 5: Wind hurts more than players’ games
Day 6: Is kinesio taping hype or helpful?
Day 8: Athletes must take meds, supplements with caution
Day 9: Medical aspects of professional tennis