Is summer really here or will we have another cold spell? We certainly can’t determine the season going only by people’s attire, but if we could, it’s definitely summertime. And that means slathering on sunscreen, sporting snazzy hats and protecting our eyes with sunglasses.
Some folks — usually the young — are more concerned with how fast they can tan than with protecting their skin. I hope they’re at least using sunscreen in their quests to attain the perfect golden glow. Unfortunately, for many people, a suntan is worth the increased risk of skin cancer. More than 1 million new cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed in the United States this year.
Anyone can get skin cancer. Although most cases occur in fair-skinned people older than 50, cancer also can develop in younger people and those with dark skin. In general, an individual’s lifetime exposure to UV light determines their risk. An adult’s risk of skin cancer usually is decided in childhood, when most people get the majority of their lifetime sun exposure. Individuals at greater risk for skin cancer include people who:
• Have light skin that freckles easily and tends to burn rather than tan. Individuals with blond or red hair and blue or gray eyes often have fair skin.
• Live in geographic regions closer to the equator, where sunlight is strongest.
• Work outdoors or spend lots of time in leisure activities in the sun.
• Already have had skin cancer.
Nearly half of all new cancers are skin cancers. Both basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma have a better than 95 percent cure rate if detected and treated early. Early detection and treatment is especially important when dealing with melanoma because it can metastasize to other parts of the body. More than 77 percent of skin-cancer deaths are from melanoma. Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in men and the seventh most common cancer in women, and statistics show that one person dies of melanoma every hour.
Dermatologists warn that the sun is most dangerous between 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and that skin-cancer risks may vary with the kind of sun exposure.
Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma more commonly are seen in people who spend a lot of time in the sun over many years. .
Malignant melanoma is more frequent in people who get occasional, high-intensity sun exposure such as people who sunbathe on vacations or during brief sunny periods in cold climates.
Several studies show that a single serious sunburn can increase a person’s risk of skin cancer by 50 percent.
For all types of skin cancer, early detection is the answer. It strongly is recommended that everyone check their skin regularly for any abnormal growths or unusual changes. This helps you detect and treat skin cancer (or other skin abnormalities) as early as possible. The easiest time to do the exam is after you take a bath or shower. Ideally, the room should have a full-length mirror and bright lights so that you can see your entire body well. It is important to be able to examine all areas of your skin, including hard-to-see areas, such as the scalp and back.
Look for these danger signs in pigmented lesions of the skin. Consult your dermatologist immediately if any of your moles or pigmented spots exhibit:
• Asymmetry: one half unlike the other half
• Border: irregular, scalloped or poorly circumscribed border
• Color: shades of tan, brown, black, sometimes white, red or blue. The color from a mole or pigmented spot should not vary from one area to another.
• Diameter: spots larger than 6 millimeters should be taken seriously (diameter of a pencil eraser)
To prevent skin cancer, always protect yourself from the sun. Wear hats, preferably with a 2-inch brim, UV-treated sunglasses, protective clothing and waterproof sun block. Make sure one of the main ingredients of the sun block is a strong blocking agent, like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, and that the sun block has a minimum sun-protective factor of 15.
Look for sun block that protects against both ultraviolet-B rays and ultraviolet-A rays. UVBs are short-wave solar rays that are considered the primary cause of skin cancers. UVAs are long-wave rays that cause wrinkling and skin aging. UVAs are thought to interact with UVBs to increase cancer risks. Remember to periodically reapply waterproof sun block if you’re outdoors for a long period of time.
Children, with their sensitive skin, especially are vulnerable to the sun. While skin cancer is uncommon in children, the damage that leads to it is sustained in childhood. It’s crucial that kids wear plenty of sun block (at least SPF 30) as well as protective clothing, such as hats and shirts, when they’re out in the sun.
Some people think tanning salons offer a pre-emptive strike against skin cancer. That is not true! A Brown University Medical School study found people who used tanning beds when they were young were nearly three times more likely to get squamous cell carcinoma and one and a half times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma than those who didn’t use tanning salons.
If you desire a tan, take precautions by limiting the amount of sun you soak up during the hottest part of the day and by wearing sun block and protective clothing. Now, enjoy these glorious days before the humidity comes to stay.
Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.