Prevent Skin Cancer, Be Prepared This Summer!
With summer bearing down on us, it’s critical to take steps to prevent skin cancer before it starts. Most people love the joy of a hot summer day but, if you don’t take precautions, you can come to regret those moments in the sun later.
Skin cancer is the most often diagnosed form of cancer in the United States.More patients develop this disease than all other forms of cancer combined.There are two main types of skin cancer. All the other forms of skin cancer make up less than 1% of patient cases.1
- Melanoma – develops in skin cells called melanocytes. Approximately 76,000 cases were diagnosed in the United States in 2014. While there are fewer cases of melanoma, it is much deadlier. It is the cause of more than 10,000 deaths per year. Experts estimate that 90% of melanoma cancers are a direct result of over-exposure to the sun’s UV rays.
- Keratinocyte – develops in skin cells called keratinocytes. There are two sub-types called basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Approximately 3.5 million cases were diagnosed in the United States in 2014. Half of all Americans are predicted to develop a BCC or SCC by the age of 65.
The top layer of your skin (the part you can see) is called the epidermis. This is the thin layer that you regularly shed and it contains three kinds of cells. Just below the epidermis are the squamous cells that make up your skin’s inside layer. Below those are the basal cells, responsible for making new skin cells to replace what you lose almost constantly.
In the deepest layer are the melanocytes that determine your natural skin pigment (fair to dark) and produce more melanin when you’re outside to protect you. Getting a “tan” is the result of your skin going into high protection mode to shield the deepest layers of your skin from ultraviolet rays (UV).
Most cases of skin cancer are found on the parts of your body most often exposed to the sun. However, you can get skin cancer anywhere on your body. 2 Your scalp, the bottoms of your feet, and around your groin...anywhere you have skin, you can develop skin cancer – even if they have never been exposed to the sun. Cancer in unusual places is the source of intense research since it points to factors other than the sun – such as exposure to toxins or unknown environmental causes.
For the last three decades, the number of skin cancer cases have climbed by 4% every year. If detected early, the survival rate for skin cancer is higher than most other forms. Even the more aggressive melanoma has a 90% survival rate for patients five years after treatment.
The Sun Isn’t the Bad Guy
Harvard Medical School summed up our current love/hate relationship with the sun by saying, “Nobody wants to get skin cancer, but we’ve gone from sun worship to sun dread.”
You need the sun. Humans crave sunshine. That’s because your body uses what it provides to keep you healthy and to run many of the basic systems inside you. It’s been scientifically proven that a lack of sunlight makes you more susceptible to mental and physical illness.
You can’t (and shouldn’t) avoid the sun entirely. The key to prevent skin cancer is responsible exposure. Five sunburns before the age of 18 increases your lifetime risk of melanoma by 80%.
Skin cancer can happen to anyone, at any age, at any time of the year, and anywhere on your body – regardless of skin pigment. Though people with naturally dark skin are diagnosed with skin cancer less often, their case is more likely to be serious – even fatal – if contracted. Also, if you’ve been diagnosed with skin cancer in the past, your risk for recurrence is more serious.
Primary Signs and Symptoms of Skin Cancer
A universal symptom across all forms of skin cancer is a spot on your body that does not heal normally or that bleeds and scabs over more than once. Here’s what to look for...
Basal Cell Carcinoma – Most Common Skin Cancer
- Most common location is neck and face
- An open sore that bleeds or seems to ooze
- Waxy or shiny bumps (similar to a scar)
- Lesion that is flesh-colored to brown in tone
- Pink bump that has an indentation in the center
- A spot that always seems to itch
Squamous Cell Carcinoma – Second Most Common Skin Cancer
- Most common location is face, ears, hands, and neck (the scalp if you are bald)
- Red bump that is firm to the touch
- Flat lesion that is pale pink to dark red in tone
- A new sore that appears on a mole or scar tissue
- An open sore that bleeds or seems to ooze
Melanoma – Most Aggressive Skin Cancer
- Most common location is the face, torso, and legs
- An open sore that bleeds or seems to ooze
- A mole that changes in size, color, or texture
- Lesion with an unusual border or strangely colored
- Dark spots on areas that aren’t generally exposed to sun (palms, soles, inside of the mouth, genitals, or under nails
If you notice that areas of your skin – particularly moles – have changed, see a dermatologist. Skin conditions are common so don’t allow fear to overtake you if you notice a dry, red, or raised place on your body. Make an appointment, watch the area carefully, and let your doctor examine you. Early detection is critical. This makes most treatment extremely successful.
Environmental damage is gradually depleting our ozone layer. The ozone is the filter that protects us from the ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. That makes the sun feel “stronger” now than even twenty years ago. Unfortunately, it will probably get worse in the next twenty years.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that another 10% decrease in the ozone will mean an additional 300,000 cases of skin cancer being diagnosed annually.3
The Very Real Dangers of “Fake Bake”
While our natural sun has gotten stronger, there’s another trend that has exploded in the last 30 years and is top on your list if you want to prevent skin cancer.
The indoor tanning industry is raking in an estimated $2.6 billion every year on a product that has been declared a known carcinogen by the United States Department of Health and Human Services as well as the World Health Organization.4
Their primary demographic – more than 70% – are Caucasian females ages 16-29. 30 million people use tanning beds every year and more than 2 million are teenagers. Every day, one million people can be found in a tanning salon. The first visit increases your chances of skin cancer by 59% – a number that climbs with every visit.
In fact, according to a recent study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), tanning beds are directly responsible for more than 450,000 new cases of non-melanoma cancer and 10,000 new cases of melanoma cancer in the US, Australia, and Europe every year.5
Their conclusion stated, “Exposure to indoor tanning is common in Western countries, especially among young persons. Given the large number of skin cancer cases attributable to indoor tanning, these findings highlight a major public health issue.”
Indoor tanning results in rapid skin aging, immune disorders, and severe eye conditions such as cataracts (clouding of the lens in the eye) and ocular melanoma (cancer of the eye).
Proven Risk Factors for Skin Cancer
- Fair skin (less melanin production), light eye color, or hair that is blonde or red
- A history of severe sunburns (1 “blistering” sunburn doubles your risk)
- A history of mild sunburns (5 mild burns doubles your risk)
- Family history of skin cancer (immediate relatives)
- Personal history of skin cancer
- Excessive exposure to the sun (recreational or professional)
- Tanning (in sunlight or tanning beds)
- Living in high altitudes (UV exposure increases 4% per 1000 feet above sea level)
- Living in warm or sunny climates (year-round UV exposure)
- Exposure to radiation (acne and eczema treatments)
- Compromised immune system (AIDS and organ transplant recipients)
- Having many moles (dysplastic nevi)
- Having rough, scaly “patches” (actinic keratosis)
- Medications that increase photosensitivity (sunlight can cause an allergic reaction)
Again, everyone can (and does) get skin cancer but the highest risk group by far is Caucasians with fair skin, light eyes, and light hair.
9 Easy Ways to Prevent Skin Cancer
- Share the natural sunscreen. Slather it everywhere, share it with friends, and get the kids every time they come out of the water (no more than 90 minutes between applications). Don’t be shy. Apply it all over yourself!
- Apply and then apply again (and again). Set a 90-minute timer for reapplication of natural sunscreen (sooner if you’re in and out of the water). There is no such thing as “waterproof” or “sweat proof” – even the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made sunscreen manufacturers take those claims off their products. Water and sweating removes all sunscreen (natural or otherwise) so reapply often and liberally.
- Up your style points with hats and shades. If you’re going to spend all day outside in prime sun – wear a hat! The skin of your face is extremely prone to dehydration and burn. You don’t want to hasten wrinkles, sunspots, or scarring so slap a hat on your head if you’ll be out for more than an hour. If you keep your head bald, you must wear something on top of your head while in the sun. Your eyes are fragile and prone to sun damage, glare, wind, and dehydration. These can lead to many eye conditions such as cataracts and ocular melanoma. After all day in the sun, make sure you give your eyes a rest by removing your contacts and adding some saline drops to moisturize.
- Know the side effects of medications. Many medications (pharmaceutical and over-the-counter) feature increased photosensitivity as a little-known side effect. Some of the most common are sunscreens (the irony), antibiotics, antihistamines (Benedryl), diuretics, painkillers (Aleve), acne creams, and prescriptions for serious illness such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer treatment, and malaria.
- Choose your outside time wisely. If you’re going to be outside for a long time during peak ultraviolet ray hours (in North America, that’s considered 10am until 4pm), your greatest asset is common sense. Sunburn, heat stroke, and dehydration are rampant in the summer months. Remember, you can burn when it’s cloudy, when it’s cold, or even by reflected sun from sidewalks, buildings, or cars. Apply natural sunscreen if you’re going to be outside – period.
- Pay attention to your skin (your largest organ). Check yourself out thoroughly and regularly if you have a history of burning, unusual moles, or any of the other high-risk factors. Note changes to moles, patches that appear dry and flaky, or if you have a wound that won’t heal. Get regular checkups if you fall into a high-risk category (it’s not paranoid...it’s smart). If you spend a lot of time outside for recreation or your profession, this applies to you as well.
- Seek shade when you need it. Listen to your body. If you begin to feel lightheaded, your head hurts, your heart begins to pound, or you feel “odd” – get under some shade and drink tepid water to avoid stomach cramps. The sun is not to be trifled with and while it’s great to be outside, knowing when to say when is critical. Having windows tinted will let you enjoy the sun while you block a large percentage of the ultraviolet rays.
- Keep your skin well-moisturized at all times. Your natural sunscreen will help while out in the sun but don’t forget to apply coconut oil (or your personal favorite organic oil) liberally after a day spent outside. It will help replenish the natural moisture your skin requires to keep doing its job of protecting all the “inner parts” of you.
- Drink water...then drink more water. Keep your cells as hydrated as possible at all times. If you’re going to be outside all day, double your usual water intake. Alcoholic beverages rob you of necessary hydration and narrow the capillaries of your brain, increasing your risk of heat stroke and medical dehydration. If alcohol is part of your social scene, drink a full bottle of water between alcoholic drinks to minimize the vessel contraction effects.
To prevent skin cancer (or keep it from coming back), is all about smart exposure to the sun. Before you head outside to the beach, the pool, the lake...make sure you take the necessary steps to protect your body’s largest organ.
Your future self will thank you!
1 Healthline: Skin Cancer Facts and Stats
2 Mayo Clinic: Diseases and Conditions – Skin Cancer
3 World Health Organization: Ultraviolet Radiation and the INTERSUN Programme
4 National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences: Report on Carcinogens – 13th Edition
5 JAMA Dermatology: International Prevalence of Indoor Tanning: A Systematic Review