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Skin Cancer: What You Should Know

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. As the expert in keeping your skin safe and healthy, spreading awareness about skin cancer is one of the most important parts of being a Dermatologist. Here’s what you should know.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, “with over 5 million cases diagnosed in the United States each year, skin cancer is America’s most common cancer. ”  Things that put you at risk for skin cancer are what we call risk factors. Some of the risk factors for skin cancer include:

  • Indoor Tanning
  • Sunburns
  • Skin Type
  • Unprotected exposure to UVA/UVB rays
  • Genetics
  • Atypical Moles
  • Medications that suppress immune system

Indoor Tanning & Skin Cancer

After 1 indoor tanning session before the age of 35, the risk of life-threatening melanoma increases by 75% (1) While we may desire a golden glow, our skin is better off without one. Anytime our skin gets a tan, what’s actually happening is DNA cell damage to the outermost layer of the skin due to exposure to Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation. Melanin is then produced by the skin cells in order to protect your skin, which results in a darker appearance. This process also speeds up the visible aging of the skin.

UV Radiation Exposure, Sunburn, Skin Type, & Genetics

There are two types of UV Radiation that is produced by the Sun that are proven to contribute to the risk of skin cancer. These are UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays are the longer wavelength of the two and is associated with skin aging, and UVB are shorter wavelengths and are associating with skin burning.

Both of these are dangerous for the skin as they do a great deal of harm; they cause changes in the DNA of the skin cells that cause mutations (possible skin cancer) and premature aging.

Most of us have gotten a sunburn, especially when we are in our childhood years and didn’t really think anything of it. The thing that we don’t realize is how damaging sunburns actually are to our skin. When we do not use proper sun protection and get a sunburn, our skin has an inflammatory response because it is damaged by UV Radiation. Our skin will produce melanin, to protect our skin from the damage, and if the damage is severe enough our skin will start to peel. The peeling process is the body shedding the damaged cells.

Some people are more prone to getting sunburns, which has to do with our genetics and

how much melanin our skin produces as it is damaged. Some produce more for protection (causing a ‘tan’ which is just a sign of cellular damage) and other’s don’t, which leads to sunburn. Our skin type also determines the susceptibility, with fair skinned folks being at the greatest risk, as well as those with red hair. Sunburns are skin injuries, and contribute directly to skin cancer: “research shows that the UV rays that damage skin can also alter a tumor-suppressing gene, giving injured cells less chance to repair before progressing to cancer.” (Skincancer.org)

Atypical Moles

When we say “atypical moles” we are referring to moles that have an unusual appearance under the microscope. People that have 10 or more atypical moles are 12x more at risk for developing melanoma than those without.  It is imperative to be vigilant in keeping track of the moles that you have on your skin so that if anything ever looks concerning to you or it changes in appearance you can see your Dermatologist for evaluation right away. Those that have multiple atypical moles as well as those with risk factors for Melanoma (fair skin, light eyes, light hair, freckles, Photosensitivity, personal or family history of Skin Cancer, tanning difficulties, as well as frequent sunburns) need to be even more aware of their skin.

When evaluating a mole, we use the ABCDE method. This is used for warning signs of atypical moles and Melanoma. 

Asymmetry. Melanomas are often not symmetrical if you draw a line down the middle and compare.

Border. Common moles tend to have smooth even borders. Melanomas often have notched, scalloped or uneven borders.

Color. Melanomas tend to appear with multiple shades of brown and even black as opposed to common moles.

Diameter and Dark. Usually, lesions the size of a pencil eraser are concerning. That equates to about 6mm or 1/4 inches in diameter.

Evolving. It is important to recognize if anything on your body is changing in any way or starts crusting, bleeding, or oozing.

Unlike most forms of cancer though, there are many things
we can do to take preventative steps.

You cannot change your genetics, but you CAN change your effort in protecting your skin. It is never too late to start increasing your sun protection efforts. The damage from the sun is cumulative and happens over time.

However, In order to reduce your risk of developing skin cancer, you must make bold and consistent moves to protect your skin from the Sun’s energy.

Here are some steps you can take to help lower your risk of developing skin cancer:

  • Stop indoor tanning. UVA rays are the main type of light in tanning beds, and UVA rays are proven to contribute to skin cancer. Do not make efforts to tan at all, as no tan is a safe tan as the “tanning” effect is your skins response to protect itself from injury.
  • Use sunscreen daily. Apply sunscreen to all exposed areas of your body. Reapply throughout the day, even if you are inside or it is cloudy. UVA rays cannot be mitigated by glass or clouds.
  • Use sun protective clothing.
  • Avoid the sun when it is at its most intense time, between 10am-4pm.
  • Consider taking a Vitamin D supplement for Melanoma prevention. Some studies have shown that proper levels of Vitamin D helps with Melanoma outcomes.
  • Get regular skin checks with your Dermatologist!

You can also read more on how to keep your skin safe from the sun in our previous blog, here.

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