Skin Cancer 101

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Prevent the fear. Know the facts.

When I was growing up, like so many “baby boomers,” getting a glorious suntan was part of my regular regime. Yes, I was of the baby oil and iodine generation-sun reflector and all. During winter months I frequented tanning salons, and I confess, I even put a tanning bed in my bathroom so I could tan when I got out of the shower. I was tan all year round.

In the 60s and 70s, we weren’t aware of the dangers of harmful UV rays and the potential of getting skin cancer. SPF wasn’t an ingredient in sun tanning oils or lotions, and it never occurred to me or my friends that avoiding the sun would keep our skin looking young later in life. We just didn’t know.

Now, many years later and hopefully wiser I’m worried that I am at risk of getting skin cancer. So, I was eager to do the research and interviews for this article and here is what I learned:

Skin cancer falls in to two broad categories, melanomas and non-melanomas, The American Academy of Dermatology reports that one person dies from fast spreading melanoma every hour. In fact, it is the seventh most common cancer in women. Non-melanomas, such as basal and squamous cell cancers rarely spread but they must be removed as well.

Now for some good news:

The American Cancer Society tells us that 82% of all melanomas are curable if they are found early enough before they get a chance to spread.

The American Cancer Society tells us that we must be alert, and be on the look out for new moles and existing moles that change in appearance.

Remember your alphabet and check:

A. Asymmetry B. Boarder irregularity C. Color variation D. Diameter that is larger than the head of an eraser E. Enlargement

If you notice any of these changes or have a sore that does not heal, see your doctor immediately.

Dr. Vincent DeLeo, Chairman of Dermatology at St Luke’s Roosevelt and Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, says the culprits are excess unprotected sun exposure and a diminishing ozone layer that allows more of the suns rays to reach the earth, but there are other risk factors as well:

    •Do you have a family history of melanoma?
    •Are you Caucasian?
    •Are you fair skinned?
    •Are you a natural blonde or red head?
    •Do you live in the mid west or southern part of the country?
    •Did you get a lot of sun exposure before you were 18?
    •Did you use a tanning bed?

You should know that melanoma could affect anyone regardless of their skin or hair color, however light skinned Caucasians with red or blonde hair are at higher risk. So protect your self says Dr. Deleo:

    •Avoid direct sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the ultraviolet radiation is the strongest.
    •Always wear a broad-spectrum, high SPF sunscreen, 15 and over, when you are out doors even in winter months.
    •Always apply sunscreens frequently and liberally to all exposed skin that means hands, neck, chest, and legs as well.
    •Perform monthly skin self-exams by taking off all your clothes, standing in front of a wall mirror, using a hand held mirror for your back, check your body from head to toe. Look for new moles and moles that have changed in appearance and size.
    See your dermatologist regularly with any suspicions or concerns about changes you find during a self-exam.

The American Cancer Society recommends that a board certified physician inspect your skin as a regular cancer-related checkup. The guideline for these checkups is every 3 years for women between age 20 and 40, and EVERY YEAR for women 40 and older, and more frequently for those women considered to be at high risk for melanoma.

Still not sure which sun protection product is right for you? Visit the Skin Cancer Foundation’s web site for a list of sun protection products that the foundation has granted their Seal of Recommendation.

For free professional skin cancer screening in your area, visit the American Academy of Dermatology’s Web site for a location near you.

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