Now that we are well into the summer months, be sure to consider the health of the largest organ in our body, our skin. Our skin serves as a barrier against our environment. It serves vital functions such as temperature regulation, protecting us against infection, and sensing the environment around us. The health of our skin is important not only for our beauty but also for our livelihood.
One of the most prevalent diseases of the skin is skin cancer. In fact, there are more cases of skin cancer diagnosed each year than the number of breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancers combined. Each year nearly 5 million people in the United States are treated for skin cancer. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer during their lives.
There are three major types of skin cancer: basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma. Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers are grouped together as these are the less dangerous varieties. These skin cancers can usually be treated by surgery alone. Although treatment for these conditions can be disfiguring, it is rarely life-threatening.
Melanoma, on the other hand, is a very different story. Melanoma caught in its early stages is very treatable. However, melanoma tends to spread through the lymphatic channels of the skin. Once it has spread and gained a foothold, melanoma is very difficult to treat. New chemotherapies have recently been approved by the FDA, but these treatments are often not curative.
How do we detect skin cancer? A simple rule of thumb is the ABCDE’s of melanoma. Asymmetry refers to the fact that dangerous moles are not round, but irregularly shaped. Borders of melanomas tend to be uneven, even notched. Melanomas tend to be multi-Colored, and are often darker than the surrounding moles. Moles with a Diameter larger than 0.25 inches (about the size of a pencil eraser) tend to be more worrisome, although early melanomas can be smaller than this. Melanomas tend to Evolve, so moles that change are the ones that should arouse suspicion.
What changes can we make to reduce our risk of skin cancers? First and foremost, avoid tanning beds. Frequent indoor tanners were found to be three times more likely to develop melanoma than those who avoided indoor tanning beds. In fact, of those who developed melanoma before the age of thirty, fully three-quarters of them had used tanning beds.
Although we cannot change our genetic risk factors, like our shade of skin color and our tendency to burn, we can still change our behavior. Cover up if you know you are going to be out in the sun. Use broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Apply sunscreen thirty minutes before outdoor activity and re-apply every two hours. Wear wide brim hats that cover the scalp, neck, and ears, and wear long-sleeve shirts.
Skin cancer can be a frightening diagnosis. But remember, when diagnosed early, skin cancer is very treatable. Frequent self-examination of your skin and yearly skin-checks by your health care provider are all good strategies for smart skin health.
Credit: Living at the Hill, August 2015 issue