By Ioana Bonta, MD
Only a generation ago, many people thought a suntan was healthy. Now we know it is not. In fact, doctors know a tan is actually a response to the skin being injured by the sun. And although a tan may not be as severe an injury as a sunburn, any change in color means the skin has been harmed. Suntans and sunburns both increase the risk of developing skin cancer.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S. According to the American Cancer Society, roughly 3.5 million cases of basal and squamous cell carcinoma are diagnosed in the U.S. each year and account for the vast majority of cases. They are often curable—especially when discovered early—and rarely spread to other areas of the body.
However, between two and five percent of skin cancers—almost 74,000 cases this year—will be potentially deadly melanoma. Like most skin cancers, melanoma is almost always curable when detected early. However, it is much more likely to spread to other areas of the body where it can be harder to treat. As a result, melanoma causes the vast majority skin of cancer deaths in the U.S., accounting for approximately 10,000 of the 13,000 annual deaths from the disease.
Skin cancer risk factors
Although most skin cancer is slow to spread and treatable, because it can also be deadly, it is important to understand the risks and how to reduce them. Some things that increase risk of skin cancer include:
- UV exposure: the most important risk for skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, including sunlight, sunlamps and tanning beds. The greater the exposure, the greater the risk. Interestingly, although the rates of melanoma are higher in the Southeast where the sun is strong, some of the highest rates in the U.S. are found in the Northwest. This should be a stark reminder that overcast skies do not protect against UV rays—and protecting skin even on cloudy days is critical.
- Fair skin: the American Cancer Society reports melanoma is more than 20 times more common in whites than African Americans. The risk is also higher in individuals with blonde or red hair, blue or green eyes or skin that burns or freckles easily.
- Age: although skin cancer risk increases with age, melanoma is one of the most common cancers in young adults, especially women. People who have had at least one severe (blistering) sunburn as a child, or used sunlamps or tanning beds before age 30, also have an increased risk.
Because it’s virtually impossible to go through life with no sun exposure. Everyone is at risk. But there are several steps one can take to protect their self and reduce the chances of developing skin cancer:
- Sunscreen: apply sunscreen to all exposed areas 30 minutes before outdoor activities. Cover areas including the back of ears, neck and tops of feet and hands (if one is balding, applying it to the scalp is also important). Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays, with an SPF of 30 or higher. Reapply every two hours, especially after swimming or sweating.
- Cover up: the sun’s UV rays are most intense between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. If one works outdoors, tightly woven clothes provide the best protection. In addition, wide-brimmed hats, hats with material that covers the back of the neck, and sunglasses help protect sensitive skin on the neck, face and around the eyes.
- Sun-safe swimwear: look for bathing suits that cover more skin—swim shirts, one-piece suits and long trunks. Many children now wear swim shirts or T-shirts while at the pool or beach, but these are also a good idea for adults.
- Look closely: regular, thorough skin examinations are important, especially if one has a large number of moles or other risk factors. While this will not prevent skin cancer from developing, exams can help catch it early. Always tell a doctor if any new, unusual or changing moles or growths appear on the skin.
(Ioana Bonta, MD is a medical oncologist with Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Newnan, Ga.)