According to the American Academy of Dermatology, one in five United States residents will get skin cancer during their lifetime.
You’d think that statistic would lead to simple preventive actions being taken – but it often doesn’t.
Perhaps that’s due to the fact that two of three types of skin cancer – basal and squamous cell carcinoma – are typically easy to treat. The third type, however, is melanoma, which can be fatal. The academy states that 140,000 new cases of malignant melanoma will be diagnosed this year and 9,700 deaths will be attributed to it.
When melanoma is caught early, it’s easier to treat; the five-year survival rate is 98 percent. Later detection lowers that number to 62 percent, and when it’s invaded other parts of the body, the survival rate falls to 10 percent. Especially troubling is the fact that many young people develop skin cancer – melanoma is the No. 1 cause of cancer for those aged 25-29, so prevention needs to start early.
Chronic sun exposure is the greatest predictive factor for all three types of skin cancer. Other risk factors include having a lot of freckles, a fair complexion, light-colored hair or eyes, family history and a compromised immune system.
Protecting yourself from the sun is the best thing you can do to lower your chance of developing skin cancer. I believe everyone older than 6 months in age should wear sunblock every day. The SPF should be at least 30, and you should look for the words “broad spectrum” on the bottle.
You should also make sure your sunblock has one or two physical agents (titanium or zinc) and is less than three years old. Write the date you bought it on the bottle. Make sure you apply a good amount – average-sized adults need roughly an ounce to cover their bodies’ exposed areas.
Other preventive measures include staying out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., wearing a hat and sunglasses, being especially diligent about covering up when you’re near reflective surfaces (such as water), and not using tanning beds. Getting to know your skin and checking for changes – even if you’re under a dermatologist’s care – is something else you can do to help your doctor monitor any skin cancer indicators. Those at risk might want to get a baseline skin screening and discuss if annual checks are warranted.
Sores that persist, scars that keep changing and pink spots that don’t heal can be signs of basal or squamous cell carcinoma. As for melanoma, use the “ABCDE” test on any suspicious moles: asymmetry (one side isn’t like the other); borders (not smooth); color (not even); diameter (more concerning if more than six millimeters across); and most importantly, evolution (changes in appearance).
Again, your self-check doesn’t take the place of seeing a doctor, so be sure to get looked at by a medical professional if anything concerns you. Better safe than sorry is certainly true when it comes to skin cancer.
Dr. Lau is a dermatologist affiliated with Sutter Medical Foundation and Sutter Medical Group , and is a partner of Solano Coalition for Better Health.