Shedding light on skin cancer

Achieving that perfect glow in the summer is a popular goal for many sunbathers. However, that perfect glow can come at a cost.

In recent years, cancer rates have fallen thanks to better screening methods and awareness. Yet the number of skin cancers is on the rise, with nearly one in five Americans expected to develop the disease in his or her lifetime. Skin cancer, the most common type of cancer, is also one of the most curable if detected and treated early.*

Bart_BruceAccording to Bruce Bart, MD, Chief Dermatologist at Hennepin County Medical Center, “Skin cancer is common, preventable, and usually easily treated and cured, especially if seen early. The prevalence of skin cancer has increased over the years, probably relating to increased outdoor activities and use of sun tanning booths. It is important that the public be educated about the risks of exposure to ultraviolet light and about methods of protecting the skin. Sunscreens, especially SPF of 30 or over, should be used prior to exposure to ultraviolet light. The sunscreen should be applied liberally and repeated with activities that cause sweating or after swimming. Dark fabrics offer better protection from ultraviolet light and special clothing containing protective agents can be purchased. Any inflamed lesions or ulcerations on the skin that do not clear after 1-2 months should be examined. Regular self-examinations are encouraged and those at risk of skin cancer should see a dermatologist regularly for skin examinations.”

Because the warning signs of skin cancer including skin changes and growths are easily visible on the outside of the body, finding the disease early is easier than with many other types of cancer. Knowing the facts about skin cancer can also help protect you from the disease, yet many Americans remain misinformed about the risks and ways to prevent skin cancer.

Myth: All types of skin cancer look and behave the same way.
There are three types of skin cancer, each with its own set of symptoms. The most common type of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma (BCC), is also the least deadly. It may look like a pearly nodule, a non-healing sore, an inflamed growth or an irritated section of skin. It often appears in areas with a history of sun exposure, like the face, ears, scalp and upper body.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) accounts for 16% of all skin cancers and often affects fair-skinned individuals with long-term sun exposure.* It may appear as a crusty or scaly patch of skin surrounded by red that resembles a tumor or non-healing wound. If not treated early, SCC may spread to other areas of the body.

Melanoma is the least common (only 4% of cases) and most dangerous form of skin cancer because it can spread quickly to the lymph system and organs. When detected early, patients have a 95% cure rate.* But that rate drops dramatically if the cancer spreads. Melanoma often looks like a new mole or develops within an existing mole.

Myth: You can only develop skin cancer on parts of the body regularly exposed to sunlight.
Although sun exposure is the leading cause of skin cancer, it can develop anywhere on the body, including the genitalia and inside the mouth. Of the three types of skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma is the most likely to begin on parts of the body that are not exposed to sunlight.

Myth: I have dark skin, so I’m not at risk.
The shade of your skin does not protect you from skin cancer. Anyone with a history of excessive sun exposure has an increased risk of developing the disease. For those with fair skin that burns or freckles easily, light-colored eyes and light or red hair, the danger is even greater. Other risk factors include a personal or family history of skin cancer, moles (especially if they are numerous, unusually shaped or large) and a suppressed immune system.

Myth: Short of avoiding sunlight altogether, there’s no good way to prevent skin cancer.
Protecting yourself from the sun is the most effective way to combat skin cancer, but that doesn’t require staying indoors. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends routinely inspecting your body for the following signs of skin cancer:
• Changes in a mole, including the spread of color into surrounding skin.
• Sudden appearance of a growth, mole, sore or skin discoloration.
• Oozing or bleeding from a scabby mole.
• Change in sensation, such as itchiness, tenderness or pain.
If you notice any of these signs or changes in the number, size, shape and color of pigmented areas, consult your doctor. Individuals with an elevated risk of skin cancer should be examined by a dermatologist annually. With proper sun protection and regular self exams, Americans may be able to slow the surge of skin cancers.

The ABCDs of Melanoma
The incidence of melanoma, the most lethal form of skin cancer, has skyrocketed in recent years. From 1950 to 2001, the number of cases increased by 690% and the mortality rate jumped by 165%*. But early detection may be the key to reversing this trend. Inspect your skin for the following danger signs in pigmented areas of the skin:

Asymmetry – two halves of a mole look different.
Border – edges are irregular, scalloped or poorly defined.
Color – shades of brown, black, white, red or blue within one mole.
Diameter – moles are larger than 6 mm across (the size of a pencil eraser).

* Source: The American Academy of Dermatology, www.aad.org.

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