Ask The Doc - Skin Cancer

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Question: What can I do to protect myself from skin cancer this summer?  

By Dr. Heather Wells, MD, Dermatology, Columbia St. Mary’s and Madison Medical Affiliates

After the long, grueling winter, summer is finally here. Backyard barbecues, swimming, hanging out at the beach, fishing, cycling and hiking – everyone wants to spend as much time outside as possible. With all that outdoor fun, however, come some risks.

Skin cancer is far and away the most common cancer in the world, accounting for upwards of 75 percent of all cancers. Thankfully, most cases are easily preventable with some simple precautions. No one expects you to stay tucked away inside all day hiding from the sun, but you do need to be safe and smart so you can enjoy your summer to its fullest without any lasting ill effects.

The primary cause of skin cancer is exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) rays of sunlight – tanning beds and sunlamps are not a safe alternative. Those with fairer skin are at greater risk, as are those with a family history. Skin cancer is approximately three times more prevalent in men than in women, and it is most often seen in older people – though skin cancers of all types are on the rise in people between the ages of 20-35 years.

Three most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma are usually slow growing and rarely life-threatening. Melanoma, on the other hand, can be fatal if not caught and treated early. Most skin cancers start as visible spots or growths on the skin. Regular skin checks by a dermatologist along with monthly self-skin exams are most beneficial for early detection and treatment.

The “ABCDE” system is a handy guide to help determine if a mole or skin growth is a cause for concern:

Asymmetry: One half doesn't match the other half.
Border irregularity: The edges are uneven, ragged or blurred.
Color: The color is not uniform throughout or there are many colors within the same growth or spot.
Diameter: The mole is larger than 1/4 inch (6mm; about the size of a pencil eraser).
Evolution: There is a change in the size, shape, symptoms (such as itching, tenderness or bleeding), or color.

The best course of action is to try and prevent skin cancer from developing in the first place with sun avoidance and protection. Avoid prolonged exposure to the sun, especially during the peak hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Daily sunscreen of sun protection factor (SPF) 30 should be worn on all exposed areas, even during winter months. When outside for longer periods of time, use a sunscreen with at least a SPF 50. Apply about two tablespoons (1 ounce) to your entire body and reapply every two hours while outside. Remember to apply sunscreen to the tops of ears, scalp (especially along the part), back of hands, tops of feet, and lips. UV-blocking sunglasses and SPF-rated lip balm are essential to protect your eyes and lips. Wearing a wide brimmed hat and the use of sun protective clothing is ideal for avoidance of UV rays.

Sunscreen becomes less effective after its expiration date. On average, sunscreen lasts one to two years, but if you’re using it as often as you should, you’ll run out before the sunscreen expires.

There is no such thing as a healthy tan. Tanning indicates injury to the skin. Following the above sun safety guidelines should allow you to still enjoy summer outdoor activities while reducing the negative consequences of UV damage.

Dr. Heather Wells is a dermatologist at Columbia St. Mary’s and Madison Medical Affiliates. For more information, call 414-298-7100.

This article appeared in the July 9 issue of The Ozaukee News Graphic.



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