By James N. Martin, Jr, MD
President, The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
Each year, more than two million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer, the most common form of cancer in the US. While non-melanoma skin cancers—such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma—occur more frequently, melanoma is the most serious type. Skin cancer can be deadly, but fortunately, it can often be prevented or successfully treated if detected early.
Too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays—the invisible radiation given off by the sun or by the artificial light in tanning beds and sunlamps—is the cause of most skin cancers. UV exposure is also a main cause of skin wrinkling and discoloration.
Anyone can develop skin cancer, regardless of race or skin tone. Just a few serious sunburns over the course of your lifetime can significantly raise your chances of developing skin cancer in the future. Having many moles, irregular moles, or large moles; fair skin that freckles and burns easily; or skin cancer previously can also increase your risk.
Keep these tips in mind as you enjoy outdoor activities:
Avoid sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV rays are most intense, or stay in the shade if you must be outside.
Do not use tanning beds or sunlamps.
Cover as much of your skin as possible with protective clothing such as a long-sleeved shirt and long pants or skirts.
Put on a hat with a brim at least two to three inches wide. If it’s a straw hat, it should be tightly woven.
Apply at least a palmful of sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher about 20 to 30 minutes before you go outside, even on hazy or overcast days. Reapply every two hours if you are swimming or sweating. Use a lip balm with SPF protection, too.
Wear wrap-around sunglasses that absorb at least 99% of UV rays to protect your eyes.
Perform regular skin checks and have your partner, a friend, or relative help check hard-to-see areas such as your back and scalp, or ask your doctor to check your skin at your visits. Be sure to inspect your palms, fingernails, and feet—about half of skin cancers in darker-skinned people are found in these areas.
Contact your doctor if you notice that a birthmark or mole changes in symmetry (one half starts to look different than the other); develops ragged or blurred borders; has different shades of browns and blacks; has patches of red, white, or blue or is not the same color all over; or grows larger than a pencil eraser.
For more information, visit the American Cancer Society website at http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/CancerCauses/SunandUVExposure/index. ♀