Summer is full of outdoor activities. You probably put sunscreen on yourself and your kids when you go to the pool or the beach. But do you know you should protect your skin with more than just sunscreen anytime you're outside? It's best to use several different kinds of sun protection all year round. When you're working in the yard, watching a ballgame, or taking an afternoon walk, make sun safety an everyday habit so you can avoid getting a sunburn and lower your chance of getting skin cancer.
What Is Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer is the out-of-control growth of abnormal cells in the epidermis, the outermost skin layer, caused by unrepaired DNA damage that triggers mutations. These mutations lead the skin cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumors. The main types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), melanoma and Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC).
What Causes Skin Cancer?
The two main causes of skin cancer are the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays and the use of UV tanning beds. The good news is that if skin cancer is caught early, a dermatologist can treat it with little or no scarring and high odds of eliminating it entirely. Often, the doctor may even detect the growth at a precancerous stage, before it has become a full-blown skin cancer or penetrated below the surface of the skin.
May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month
With more than 5 million cases diagnosed in the United States each year, skin cancer is America's most common cancer — in fact, it's more common than all other cancers combined. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more than 90% of cancer is caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation from excessive sun exposure. Overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays also cause most cases of melanoma, the deadliest kind of skin cancer. Melanoma can present warning signs such as irregular moles, non-healing sores and moles that have undergone visible changes. While anyone can get any of the 15 types of skin cancer, some factors may increase your risk, such as:
- Light skin tone
- Skin that burns easily
- Light-colored eyes
- A history of skin cancer
Other facts to consider:
- Unprotected skin can be damaged by the sun's UV rays in as little as 15 minutes.
- Even if it's cool and cloudy, you still need protection. UV rays, not the temperature, do the damage.
The Dangers of Skin Cancer
There's more danger to unprotected UV exposure than sunburn. Here are a few skin cancer facts to keep in mind:
- Being sunburnt more than five times doubles your risk of skin cancer.
- Melanoma can spread to other body parts by invading nearby tissue.
- Melanoma becomes more difficult to treat after spreading deeper into the skin or reaching other parts of the body.
- Severe cases of skin cancer may require reconstructive surgery.
- Long-term effects of skin cancer may include scarring, hyperpigmentation, muscle damage and lymphedema.
How to Prevent Skin Cancer
Though skin cancer is prevalent, it is also one of the most preventable forms of cancer. Knowing the dangers of unprotected UV exposure and taking steps to protect yourself and those around you can save lives. Limiting your exposure to harmful UV rays is the most effective step you can take to lower your risk of melanoma. Listed below are several recommendations that can help minimize overexposure and risk:
- Seek the shade, especially between 10 AM and 4 PM.
- Avoid tanning and never use UV tanning beds.
- Cover up with clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.
- Use a broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day. For extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, broad- spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
- Apply 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) of sunscreen to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours or after swimming or excessive sweating.
- Keep newborns out of the sun. Use sunscreen on babies over the age of six months.
- Examine your skin head-to-toe every month.
- See a dermatologist at least once a year for a professional skin exam.
Early Detection is Key
When caught and treated early, skin cancers are also highly curable. In the early stages of skin cancer development, YOU are the one with the best chance to see changes. Self-exams are a simple way to look at yourself with a new focus that can save your life.
Because skin cancers appear in many shapes and sizes, it's important to know the warning signs associated with the various forms of skin cancer. If you see something NEW, CHANGING or UNUSUAL, get checked by a dermatologist right away. It could be skin cancer. This includes:
- A growth that increases in size and appears pearly, transparent, tan, brown, black, or multicolored.
- A mole, birthmark or brown spot that increases in size, thickness, changes color or texture, or is bigger than a pencil eraser. Learn the ABCDEs of melanoma.
- A spot or sore that continues to itch, hurt, crust, scab or bleed.
- An open sore that does not heal within three weeks.
A thorough self-exam requires the following simple supplies: a bright light, a full-length mirror, a hand mirror, two chairs or stools and a blow-dryer. Be sure to document your findings by writing them down, or use your phone to take pictures.
Skin cancer can sneak up on us if we aren't looking out for it, and is often not something we think about for regular checkups. However, it pays to pay attention to your skin, so take advantage of Skin Cancer Awareness Month to educate yourself and help shine a spotlight on the world's most common cancer.