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May is Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month

By Ross S. Levy, MD | Dermatology

With more than one million new cases of skin cancer occurring annually, it’s more important than ever this summer to protect the skin you’re in. According to the American Cancer Society, about 5.4 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer will be diagnosed annually in the United States. Melanoma, the most virulent form of skin cancer, will account for more than 76,000 cases of skin cancer in 2016 and 75% of all skin cancer deaths.

Skin cancer is by far the most common cancer, with one in five Americans developing skin cancer in their lifetime. The primary reason for this epidemic is that we are not effectively protecting ourselves from the sun’s ultraviolet rays (UV) from a young age, so the damage has built up over time.

While skin cancer is deadly, it is curable if detected early. The five-year survival rate for people whose melanomas are detected and treated before they spread to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body is 98%.

Get savvy about skin cancer by knowing your risk factors for skin cancer, learning how to prevent skin cancer and some surprising facts about sun safety.

Know Your Risk Factors for Skin Cancer

The risk factors for skin cancer include:

  • A family history of skin cancer or melanoma.
  • A history of blistering sunburns as a teenager or young child.
  • Fair skin, red or blonde hair, light (green or blue) eyes.
  • A history of Actinic Keratoses (AKs), lesions on the skin considered to be precursors to skin cancer.
  • Certain types and a large number of moles.
  • Living in sunny or high-altitude climates.
  • Excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays from sunlight or tanning beds.
  • Working or playing outdoors in the mid-day sun (between 10 am and 4 pm)

You can reduce your risk for skin cancer by adopting healthy sun protection habits from a young age, using sunscreen and protective clothing consistently, avoiding mid-day sun, checking your skin regularly and going for annual dermatology checkups.  Annual checkups should begin in your early to mid 20s if you are at a high risk, and between ages 45-50 if you are not at high risk for skin cancer.

It is also important to know the ABCDEs of suspicious moles: (a)symmetry, (b)order irregularity, (c)olor change, (d)iameter greater than the size of a pencil eraser, and an (e)levated or raised mole or skin lesion. Ultimately, know your body better than any dermatologist could. Make sure you inspect yourself and your loved ones monthly for any abnormal areas or new growths.

Prevention Tips for Sun Safety

  • Seek shade whenever possible and avoid mid-day sun (between 10 am and 4 pm)
  • Follow the American Cancer Society’s Slip! Slop! Slap! and Wrap! rules:

Slip on a shirt:  Cover up with protective clothing to guard your skin when you’re out in the sun. Wear clothing with ultraviolet (UV) radiation protection factor of 30 or greater.  A white t-shirt has an UV protective factor of 5.

Slop on sunscreen:  Look for sunscreen and lip balm that has broad-spectrum protection (which will protect you from UVA rays, the rays that age us, and UVB rays, the rays that cause sunburn) and has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30+.  Use at least an ounce of sunscreen on all areas of exposed skin, and reapply every two hours after sweating, swimming, or toweling off.

Slap on hat:  Wear a wide-brimmed hat that shades your face, ears and neck.

Wrap on sunglasses:  Wear sunglasses with 100% UVA and UVB protection.

  • Practice safe sun tips on cloudy and overcast days, because UV rays can pass through clouds.

Surprising Facts about Sun Safety

There’s no such thing as a “safe tan”.  Any change in your skin’s pigment indicates that some sun damage has occurred. Prolonged UV exposure can lead to DNA damage and photoaging, even in the absence of a sunburn.

The higher the altitude, the more powerful the sun is.  Most of us know that the closer to the equator you are, the more intense the sun’s rays. Additionally, the higher up you are, the more intense the sun’s rays are. For every 1,000 feet of elevation, there is an approximate 10% increase in the sun’s ultraviolet intensity. So if you’re vacationing in a high-altitude location such as Denver, Colorado, you’re getting 50% more sun exposure than you are when you’re back home in New York, which is at sea-level (zero elevation).

You are still getting sun exposure when in your car. While car windows and windshields effectively block UVB rays, UVA rays pass through glass.   Protect yourself and your loved ones by applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF15 or higher to your face, arms, neck and hands about half an hour before you drive.

Sunscreens with high SPFs create a false sense of security. Many people believe they can stay out in the sun longer if they use sunscreen with a high SPF. Sun damage can take place even if your skin doesn’t burn.  Sunscreens should be considered just one vital part of a comprehensive sun protection regimen.

Remember to reapply your sunscreen and keep in mind that sunscreen is just a part of a comprehensive sun protection regimen!