Even though we are technically now into fall, here in Florida, the sun is shining most days, and I for one, feel energized by the sunlight. It gets pretty hot in Florida, so I don’t spend a lot of time outside in the sun, except when my sister and I are doing yard word. (I’m the “official” grass cutter at our house.)
I didn’t used to be a sun avoider. As a teen in Pennsylvania, I worshiped the sun. Now, I’m worried about the damage I did. I’m concerned about my risk for skin cancer.
Actually, skin cancer should be everyone’s concern. According to the American Cancer Society, it is the most common cancer in the United States, so common that more skin cancers are diagnosed each year than all other cancers combined.
What’s more, the American Academy of Dermatology tells us that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. The AAD adds that more than 8,500 people in the US are diagnosed with skin cancer every day.
There are many different types of skin cancer, but the three most common are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Skin cancer starts in the cells of the skin, which is the largest organ in the body.
Squamous cell carcinomas start in the squamous cells, which are thin flat cells that form the top layer of the epidermis, the outer layer of skin cells. Basal cells carcinomas form in the basal cells, which are the round cells found under the squamous cells. Melanoma forms in the melanocytes. These are the cells that create the pigment melanin, which gives skin its natural color. Melanocytes are located in the lower part of the epidermis.
Spending a lot of time in the sun is a big risk factor for skin cancer, but it’s not the only one. Other risk factors to consider include having: a fair complexion; a personal or family history of skin cancer; a lot of moles on the skin; a weakened immune system and a job outdoors. In addition, living or vacationing in high altitudes, or tropical or subtropical climates and having had past treatment with radiation are also risks.
To protect yourself, doctors recommend routine skin exams. These include monthly self-exams and an exam by a physician at a time interval determined by him or her based on your risk factors and past history of skin disorders. When examining your skin, it’s important to check any moles, blemishes and birthmarks from the top of your head to your toes. By examining your skin regularly, you will be able to notice if something changes or doesn’t look right.
Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas tend to develop on areas of the body that get a lost of sun, such as the head, neck and arms. But that doesn’t mean they don’t grow anywhere else. When doing your self-exam, look for things like new growths, spots, bumps or patches, or sores that take a long time to heal. Keep and eye open for red patches that might be itchy or scaly and growths or bumps that are raised or pimply.
The biggest thing to look for with melanoma is a new spot on the skin or a spot that’s changing in size, shape or color. Also watch out for any spots that look different from all the other spots on your skin. There is a guide to follow for detecting melanoma. Tell your doctor if a spot has any of the ABCDE signs:
- A = Asymmetry. One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.
- B = Border. The edges are irregular, ragged, notched or blurred.
- C = Color. The color is not the same all over. It may include shades of brown or black, or it may have patches of pink, red, white or blue.
- D = Diameter. The spot is larger than 6 mm across. However, some melanomas can be smaller than this.
- E = Evolving. The spot is changing in size, shape or color.
So now that you know what to look for, how can you reduce the risk that you’ll find something. You can’t do anything about some of the risk factors for skin cancer, like a family history. You can’t change who you are. But you can take some steps to change the biggest risk factor – your exposure to the sun.
The recommendations for preventing too much sun are pretty simple. If you are going to be in the sun, think of this catchphrase, “Slip! Slop! Slap!® and Wrap! That stands for Slip on a shirt. Slop on sunscreen. Slap on a hat, and wrap on sunglasses.
If you’d like to know more, this American Cancer Society article goes into more depth about sun exposure, the cancer types and the prevention recommendations. The best thing you can do is use your common sense. Be sun wise!