Living along coastal South Carolina, many of us spend a lot of time outdoors. We go to the beach; we kayak; we sail; we fish; we bike; we run; and we work in the yard. With all this time spent outdoors, we need to take extra care to avoid exposure to the suns' ultraviolet (UV) rays.
While anyone can get skin cancer, long term exposure to UV rays appears to be the biggest risk factor. That means that something as simple as applying a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher can go a long way in preventing this increasing form of cancer. Sunscreen products vary greatly, so be sure to read and follow the directions on the label so you know how much lotion to put on and how often to re-apply, in particular after swimming, sweating or remaining in the sun for long periods of time.
Other risk factors for skin cancer include:
- Fair complexion
- Family history of skin cancer
- Personal history of cancer
History of sunburns early in life
- Atypical moles
- A large number of moles
- Live or vacation in tropical or subtropical climates
- Live at a high altitude
In addition to applying sunscreen, other actions you can take to reduce the risk of developing skin cancer in are:
- Stay in the shade
- Wear a hat
- Cover up with clothes
- Wear sunglasses that block UV rays
- Avoid sunlamps and tanning beds/booths
- Limit any exposure to the sun during midday
- Conduct regular self-examinations. If a melanoma should develop, it is usually curable if detected in the early stages. You should do a self-examination in a bright room, and all the equipment you will need are a full-length mirror and a hand held mirror. The steps to follow for a self-examination are:
- Raise your arms and examine your body full front and then turn and look at your back, then your right and left sides using the full length mirror
- end your elbows and look closely at your forearms and palms
- Check the back of your upper arms using the full length mirror
- Look at the backs of your legs and your feet, including the soles and between the toes
- Use the hand held mirror to check the back of your neck and your scalp
- Check your back and buttocks further with the hand held mirror
- While doing your self-examination, look for these signs:
- An asymmetrical lesions
- A lesion with ragged, notched or blurred edges
- A lesion with irregular coloration, possibly with shades of tan, brown or black.
- Dashes of red or blue might also appear
- A lesion that is greater than the size of a pencil eraser
- Any growth of a new mole or increased size of an existing mole
Skin cancer appears as one of three forms:
Basal Cell Carcinoma. This is the most common form of skin cancer in fair-skinned people. It rarely appears in African-Americans. These tumors appear as a small, fleshy bump, usually on the head, neck or hands, and grow very slowly. Basal Cell Carcinoma will only rarely metastasize (spread to other parts of the body), but it can extend below the skin to the bone and cause serious damage. If left untreated, the cancer lesion will usually bleed, crust over, and heal in a continuous cycle.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma. This is the second most common type of skin cancer found in fair-skinned people, but rarely appears in African-Americans. These lesions appear as a bump or a red, scaly patch, usually on the rim of the ear, the face, lips or mouth. This cancer can develop into large masses and can also metastasize to other parts of the body, but can be treated and cured about 95% of the time when found early.
Malignant Melanoma. This is the most deadly form of skin cancer, especially if not detected early. However, if it is detected early, malignant melanoma is almost always curable. Melanoma can appear suddenly, but may also begin in or near a mole or other dark spot on the skin. This makes self-examinations very important, so you are aware of the location and appearance of moles and other body marks so we know if or when they change. Any change to a mole should be examined by a doctor as soon as it is noticed. Look for changes in the surface of a mole, scaliness, oozing, bleeding or the appearance of new bumps. Also look for the spread of the pigment for a mole into the surrounding skin area, or a change in the feeling a mole with itchiness, tenderness or pain. While heredity does play a factor in the risks of getting melanoma, sun exposure is the most preventable cause, for fair-skinned people in particular. Dark skinned people can also develop malignant melanoma, most frequently on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, under nails or in the mouth.
For more information about skin cancer prevention, detection, causes, types and treatment try these resources:
- Melanoma Education Foundation (www.skincheck.com)
- American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org/eprise/main/docroot/CRI/cri_0)
- The Skin Cancer Foundation (www.skincancer.org)
- National Cancer Institute (www.cancernet.nci.nih.gov/wyntk_pubs/skin.htm)
- American Academy of Dermatology (www.aad.org)
- Centers for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov/cancer/nscpep/index.htm)