A Skin Cancer Reality Check: Save Your Skin and Your Health
In 1999, while I was living in Southern California, I became a skin cancer statistic.
A caring massage therapist spotted a suspicious mole and advised me to see a dermatologist. He excised the melanoma and sent me to a plastic surgeon who cut a chunk out of my arm to “cover the margins.” It was scary and painful. After the anesthetic wore off, I could feel the aching of the skin stretched over the wound.
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S. and there are three basic types:
Basal cell carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma
By far, melanoma is the worst. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the vast majority of skin cancer deaths are from melanoma the rates of which have doubled from 1982 to 2011 in the United States.
My melanoma experience shocked me because I thought I was pretty good at protecting myself. A natural redhead, I have been wearing sunscreen all my life. My goal growing up was to avoid getting sunburned. But sun damage can occur even if your skin doesn’t turn red.
Sun damage – not just for summertime
That’s because there are two types of radiation from the sun: UVA and UVB radiation. UVB radiation gives you sunburn, but UVA radiation goes deeper into the skin, causing wrinkling, pigmentation, and long-term damage. And this UVA radiation is the same all day, all month and all year long. It can damage your skin just as much at 9 am in mid-December as it can at 3 pm in mid-July. So, you need to protect your skin year-round.
Make these your sun-safety habits:
- Stay in the shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Avoid tanning and steer clear of ANY kind of tanning booth.
- Use an effective sunscreen with an SPF of 30 every day and cover ALL EXPOSED AREAS, including the backs of your hands
- Cover up with clothing, a wide-brimmed hat, and UV blocking sunglasses
- Examine your skin every month and get familiar with your own pattern of moles, freckles and “beauty marks” so you can spot a suspicious change. Don’t forget to check between your toes and the bottom of your feet. If you spot anything, see your dermatologist right away. You also should be seeing a skin specialist once a year for a professional skin cancer exam.
Mind the ABCDE’s of malignant melanoma:
A mole or pigmented spot where one half is unlike the other.
Scalloped or jagged border
From one area to another –shades of tan or brown, black, sometimes white, red or blue.
Larger than a pencil eraser
Notable changes in a mole over time.
How to spot different types of cancer:
Basal cell carcinoma can show up as a dome-shaped skin growth with visible blood vessels. Often pink or skin-colored, it can also be brown, black, or have flecks of these colors. Basel cell cancers grow slowly. It may flatten in the center, ooze, and crust over. It also tends to bleed easily. It can be a shiny pink or red, slightly scaly patch, especially on its trunk. It grows slowly and may be mistaken for a patch of eczema. It may be a waxy-feeling, hard, pale-white to yellow or skin-colored growth that looks like a scar. You may have difficulty seeing the edges.
A squamous cell carcinoma can look much like a basal cell, but can also be a flat, reddish, scaly patch that grows slowly, or in rare cases, it begins under a nail and can grow to destroy the nail.
These nonmelanoma skin cancers are fairly common and are found where there has been consistent exposure over the years; the face, ears, lips, back of the hands, arms, and legs.
Choosing a good sunscreen:
The SPF numbers and ad claims of sunscreen manufacturers leave a lot to be desired. In their 11th Annual EWG Sunscreen Guide, the Environmental Working Group said “Almost three-fourths of the products we examined offer inferior sun protection or contain worrisome ingredients like oxybenzone, a hormone disruptor, or retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A that may harm skin. And despite scant evidence, the government still allows most sunscreens to claim they help prevent skin cancer.” (See the report.)
You can also sign up for the free EWG guide to sunscreens. They are exhaustively evaluated for not only Sun Protection Factor (SPF) but also for ingredient safety.
Taking good care of your skin year-round should be more than a good beauty habit. It’s a sun safety habit that will prevent painful trips to the dermatologist and could even save your life.
Sources: Dermatology Group of Southern California, American Academy of Dermatology.