SALT LAKE CITY — Skiers and resort workers should be just as concerned with the sun as they are with Utah's famous snow.
"You don't see the old raccoon eyes like you used to," said Christie Delbridge, staff relationships coordinator at Deer Valley Resort.
The mark of the sun around the eyes used to be a trademark sign among ski enthusiasts, Delbridge said.
"People are taking much better care of their skin now," she said.
Data collected by local researchers show there is an important reason to minimize exposure to potentially harmful ultraviolet rays, especially at the higher altitudes of Utah's ski resorts.
"It's not just unique to ski areas, but a lot of the recreational things we do in Utah," said Dr. Christopher Hull, a dermatologist with University of Utah Health Care.
A combination of the higher elevation and the reflection of sun on the snow makes for higher UV exposure "in the dead of winter, even with cloud cover," Hull said.
Dan Steffen, a ski instructor at Deer Valley for 23 years, said he was diagnosed "out of the blue" with late-stage metastatic melanoma in 2005 and went through a rigorous and side-effect-filled treatment regimen, only to have the cancer return 10 years later.
"It's a pretty trying experience. I wouldn't wish it on anybody," he said.
Steffen, 68, was instrumental in helping to develop the Sun Safe on the Slopes program with Huntsman Cancer Institute and Utah ski resorts. He said people often think getting a job at a resort is "cool," but they don't realize the potential hazards.
"I was not aware of the damage I was doing to my skin," he said, adding that he hopes to alert others to hazards associated with outdoor recreation.
"It can be a pleasurable experience, but it can also kill you," Steffen said.
Preventive screening might have caught his cancer earlier and saved him a lot of suffering and heartache. Steffen's experience with cancer, however, hasn't compromised his active lifestyle, which is filled with outdoor activity, including skiing, sailing, hiking and biking.
"I can't imagine my life without skiing," he said. "And passing that experience on to people through teaching is highly intrinsically rewarding to me. You have to learn how to work with the terrain and gravity and the external forces you don't have control over and learn to make everything work for you."
The 2,800 people employed at Deer Valley through the winter have access to big jugs of sunscreen in the locker rooms and dining areas, Delbridge said, to remind them to reapply throughout the day. Employees are also encouraged to wear wide-brimmed hats and long-sleeved clothing on the slopes.
"Especially this time of year, when the sun is coming out in full force," she said.
Dermatologists associated with the Huntsman Cancer Institute have visited Deer Valley and Snowbird resorts during the winter months over the past five years to screen employees for skin cancer. In that time, 38 presumed skin cancers were diagnosed among 294 participants — a nearly 10 percent detection rate, Hull said.
"That's a pretty high level," he said. "It's a group that appears to be at high risk — some of it occupational, but also recreational, as they are at a higher risk because they are outdoors and getting more UV exposure overall."
Forty-one percent of the people screened with the program have indicated they wouldn't have seen a physician for their skin if they hadn't participated in the free tests offered at the resort.
At least at Deer Valley, though, the resort's employee benefit plan covers the cost of dermatologist visits, Delbridge said.
"It's good things are being found, problems being recognized," she said. "It's good people are getting things taken care of."
At least 60 employees were screened Friday, opting for spot checks or full-body work-ups.
Huntsman's Sun Safe on the Slopes program providers believe their efforts are effective at catching potential problems for what they believe is an "at-risk population." The health concerns might not have been caught otherwise.
"Early detection is very important," Hull said, adding that if a person has one basal cell cancer, additional lesions become more likely in the future.
In addition, Utah is among places with the highest incidence rates of skin cancer, leading the nation in melanoma, he said. Melanoma is a fast-growing cancer that can spread and become deadly. Other skin cancers are slower but "still cancer," Hull said.
"Identification and early treatment helps make the treatment options more effective," he said.
Elevation and a sunny climate are risk factors for Utahns, but so are the overtly outdoor recreational lifestyle and large fair-skinned population.
"Everyone in Utah needs to pay attention," Hull said.
Through all the ups and downs, and intense emotional turmoil Steffen has experienced throughout his ongoing cancer treatment, he said he's learned a lot. And like anything, he can relate it to skiing.
"I've had my share of moguls in my life, both in skiing and in my health," Steffen said. "You have to learn to flow over them so they don't stop you."