Skin Cancer: Risk and Prevention
For many of us, summertime means fun in the sun—family vacations, relaxing on the beach, exploring mountain trails, biking around the neighborhood. It’s a great time to be outside, get some exercise, and enjoy being with family and friends. But it’s important to remember the need to protect your skin from excessive sun exposure, regardless of your age, skin tone, or race.
The Dangers of UV Exposure
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization have both identified UV radiation as a proven human carcinogen. Exposure to these invisible rays is behind 80% of your skin’s aging.
UVA rays are much more prevalent than UVB, accounting for 95% of all UV radiation. And though less intense and unlikely to cause a sunburn, recent studies indicate these rays contribute directly to premature skin aging and wrinkling, and can start the development of cancer in the outer layer of skin. These are the tanning rays, whether from the sun or a tanning bed. They penetrate more deeply than their UVB counterparts, and play a larger role in skin aging.
UVB rays, though less prevalent, are the most common cause of sunburn and reddening of the visible skin layer, and play a larger role in the development of skin cancer. Though harmful year-round, UVB intensity increases from April to October, between 10 am to 4 pm, when so many of us are enjoying time outdoors.
UVA and UVB rays work together to cause damage to your skin, and can ultimately contribute to skin cancer.
What is Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer is defined as the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells which results in tumors.
About 95% of skin cancer patients have basal or squamous cell cancers, which are are less serious and more easily treated. These non-melanoma cancers can be caused by various amounts of sun exposure and are generally curable if caught early.
Melanoma, though far less common, is also far more dangerous and is responsible for 75% of skin-cancer-related deaths. Those diagnosed with Melanoma have developed abnormal pigment cells called melanocytes which, if left untreated or undetected, can spread the cancer to other organs.
How to Spot Melanoma. The ABCDE Rule:
- Asymmetry—one half of the mole doesn’t match the other
- Border—edges are uneven or irregular
- Color—uneven patches of color
- Diameter—significant changes in size
- Evolving—any new spot or mole changes in size, shape, or color
If any of these characteristics become apparent, it’s best to consult with a physician as soon as possible.
One sunburn every two years triples your risk of skin cancer. It is by far the most common form of cancer, but also the most preventable. Common sense and careful precautions can easily reduce or even eliminate serious risk:
- Apply sunscreen with SPF of 30 or more for UVB protection and apply Zinc Oxide for UVA protection 20 minutes before sun exposure, and again every two hours
- Wear clothing, cosmetic products, and contact lenses with UV protection
- Wear sunglasses with total UV protection and hats to shade face and neck
- Avoid direct sunlight as much as possible between peak UV hours (10 am–4 pm)
- Avoid tanning beds (They emit as much as 12 times the amount of UVA rays as the sun!)
- Know your skin! Perform exams to be aware of any new growths or changes in existing growths