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Skin Cancer Awareness

Cancer, Environmental Health, Healthy Lifestyles

May has been designated as Skin Cancer Awareness Month.  One would think this is an attempt to get people to think about their sun exposure during the upcoming summer months and change their behavior.  And they should do just that!  There are more than ONE MILLION cases of skin cancer diagnosed every year in the U.S.  It is the most common type of cancer and can be easily prevented.

There are several different types of skin cancer.  Basal cell and squamous cell cancers are highly curable while melanoma is much more dangerous, especially for young people.  But melanoma is also curable if detected in its early stages.  It is estimated that 8,110 people died from melanoma in 2007 and 58,940 were newly diagnosed.   Other types of skin cancer claimed 2,740 lives. 

Exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays appears to be the most important environmental factor involved in the development of skin cancer.  People with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop skin cancer.  Risk factors include:

  • unprotected and/or excessive exposure to UV radiation by the sun or tanning bed
  • family/personal history of skin cancer 
  • a history of sunburns as a child
  • fair complexion or skin that burns, freckles, reddens easily, or becomes painful in the sun
  • blue or green eyes, blond or red hair
  • certain types and a large number of moles

The best ways to reduce the risk of skin cancer are to avoid intense sunlight for long periods of time and to practice sun safety.  The American Cancer Society recommends these sun protection habits:

  • Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Seek shade.  Teach your children the "shadow rule".  If your shadow is shorter than you, the sun's rays are at their strongest.
  • Slip on a shirt and cover up to protect exposed skin.
  • Slop on sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher.  Use it even on overcast days and re-apply it throughout the day.
  • Slap on a hat, preferably a wide-brimmed hat.  If choosing a baseball cap, remember to use sunscreen on your ears and neck.
  • Wrap on sunglasses to protect your eyes.  Make sure they offer 99%-100% protection from both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Avoid other sources of UV light.  Rays from tanning beds and sun lamps are as dangerous as those from the sun.

Infants should be kept out of direct sunlight.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using sunscreen on infants for small areas such as the face and back of hands where protection from clothing is inadequate.  Teach your children sun safety practices because they will be exposed to UV radiation their entire lives.  Pediatric melanoma is increasing about 3% a year. 

Everyone should wear sunscreen, even people with darker skin who might not get sunburned as easily as those with lighter skin.  Skin damage from excessive sun exposure can occur even though the skin does not burn.  Unfortunately, cases of skin cancer in those with darker skin are often not detected until later stages which provides all the more reason to use sunscreen. 

Remember to examine your skin regularly to look for changes, especially in the size or color of a mole or other darkly pigmented growth or spot, or a new growth.  Check for scaliness, oozing, bleeding, or change in the appearance of a bump or nodule.  The spread of dark coloring beyond the edge of a mole or mark could be a warning sign.  And note any change in sensation, itchiness, tenderness, or pain.  Any of these signs should be reported to your doctor. 

Take steps today and everyday to reduce your risk of skin cancer.  For more information, check out these websites:

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