After a long, snowy and cold winter, there are a whole lot of people who are ready to get outside and bask in the warm sunshine.
Getting outside is a great thing, especially when physical activity is involved. There’s one big thing to keep in mind, though: Protect yourself from the sun.
The sun doesn’t just put out light and heat. It also puts out forms of radiation that we can’t see. Most of that radiation is screened out by the earth’s atmosphere, but ultraviolet radiation still makes it through. Our skin is there to protect us, and it reacts defensively. That’s why people tan, because their skin is creating a substance called “melanin,” which helps absorb the radiation and keep it at skin level. Ultraviolet radiation is also a product of tanning beds.
Radiation is damaging to skin cells, however, and those cells lose their ability to repair and reproduce properly because of that damage. As time goes on, that damage can become so extreme that the cells lose their ability to self-regulate, growing out of control and becoming dangerous. That’s what skin cancer is, and it is a real problem.
It’s also not an isolated problem. Every day, my colleagues and I see tissue samples where we find evidence of a skin cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, skin cancer affected 65,647 people in 2011 (the most recent year data is available). Another 9,128 people died, with men being at a much higher risk of death from skin cancer.
There are a few different types of skin cancer. The most common types include:
- Basal cell carcinoma: Typically a slow-growing type of cancer on the top layer of the skin. If caught early, it is highly curable.
- Squamous cell carcinoma: A common type of skin cancer that is highly associated with sun exposure. If caught early, this type is also highly curable.
- Melanoma: This type of cancer affects the melanin-producing cells in skin. It is rarer than basal or squamous cell cancers, but is also more dangerous.
Certain factors make a person more susceptible to skin cancer.
- Family or personal history of skin cancer
- Fair or lighter skin (though darker-skinned individuals are still at risk), red or blonde hair and blue or green eyes
- Skin that burns, reddens, freckles or becomes painful easily after sun exposure
- Exposure to the sun through work or recreation
- History of sunburns (with more sunburns associated with increasing risk)
The good news about skin cancer is that it has some very recognizable signs. If caught early, most types are also very treatable and curable through surgery and other means. Watching for skin changes is an important step to catching skin cancer early. With melanoma, the key to identifying potential problem spots is knowing your ABCDEs:
- A is for asymmetry: Do you have any moles with an irregular shape, or that have parts that look very different?
- B is for border: Are the edges of the mole or lesion jagged or uneven?
- C is for color: Is the color of the area uneven or irregular?
- D is for diameter: Is the spot or lesion larger than a pea?
- E is for evolving: Does the mole, spot or lesion change over time (especially if it changes quickly)?
In the case of non-melanoma skin lesions, watch for symptoms like above, or patches that bleed or are irritated and do not heal. If the answer to any of the above questions is yes, then it’s time to talk to a doctor. Your doctor can help identify if you have a problem, or can refer you to a specialist who can do further study to identify if you need medical intervention. It’s absolutely critical to remember that skin cancers are time-sensitive: Waiting increases the danger and risk of bad outcomes, so don’t procrastinate!
Lastly, skin cancer is not just treatable and curable, but oftentimes is preventable. It’s important to take steps to protect yourself and especially small children, since sun exposure adds up over a lifetime and early sunburns increase the risk of later cancers. Preventing sun exposure doesn’t just help prevent cancer, but also prevents sun damage that can have cosmetic effects, causing skin to appear older and less healthy than a person’s actual age would suggest.
Some steps you can take include:
- Protective clothing: Use of clothing, including hats (especially ones that cover the face and neck) and sunglasses, is a great way to block harmful UV rays. This is important even on cloudy days, because ultraviolet rays are not stopped by clouds.
- Shady behavior: Staying in the shade helps reduce ultraviolet exposure.
- Screen and block: Sunscreen and sunblock are an important defense against sun exposure. An SPF 15 or higher is recommended. Don’t skimp on it. Slather it on early and often.
- Avoid indoor tanning: Tanning beds are associated with skin cancer risk, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend avoiding indoor tanning. If you are going to tan, do so responsibly and keep an eye out for changes in your skin.