When it comes to UV rays, less is best.
[dropcap]Years[/dropcap] of sun exposure and repeated sunburns eventually take their toll on skin in the form of wrinkles, brown spots, precancerous legions and worse — skin cancer. Each year, more than 5 million people are treated for skin cancer, and 1 in 5 Americans is likely to develop skin cancer during his lifetime. Over the past three decades, more people have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
“We have a skin cancer epidemic in the United States right now,” said Dr. Lance Henry, a Fayetteville-based dermatologist and a spokesman for the Skin Cancer Foundation. “The skin is our body’s largest organ. It is exposed to many things that can harm it, and the main thing is ultraviolet radiation [which is often referred to as UV rays]. UV rays damage your skin and increase the risk of skin cancer.”
Tanning has also contributed to the rise in number of skin cancer cases; annually, an estimated 419,000 new skin cancer cases are attributed to tanning bed use, he said.
“That’s yet another reason we’re seeing this epidemic,” Henry said. “The increase has been across all age groups, and we’re seeing people younger and younger develop skin cancer that’s linked to tanning bed use.”
The foundation recently launched its “Go With Your Glow” campaign to encourage women to love and protect their skin, whatever its natural hue.
“Tanning is really analogous to cigarette smoking,” Henry said. “People don’t think about the effects that happen decades later, but UV rays — whether from the sun or tanning beds — are carcinogens. A tan is not healthy. A tan is actually a bad thing. We call it the pre-cancerous glow.”
The effects of exposure to UV rays are cumulative, so the earlier an individual starts protecting his skin, the better. Protecting one’s skin can delay signs of aging and reduce the risk of skin cancer. That’s also why it’s especially important for parents to protect their children’s skin with sunscreen to avoid extreme sunburns that can cause cumulative damage later in life. The majority of skin cancer cases are basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, both of which are rarely fatal and can be surgically removed successfully in 95 percent of patients, said Dr. Henry Wong, chair of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ Department of Dermatology.
“Melanoma is the one we worry about the most,” Wong said. “We want to catch these as soon as possible because when they progress, they can spread.”
If melanoma is detected early and treated, the survival rate is 98 percent. If the tumor spreads to lymph nodes, survival rate drops to 63 percent and to 16 percent if the cancer metastasizes to other organs, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
An estimated 9,940 people will die this year due to melanoma, which is now the leading cancer among young people ages 25 to 29. According to Wong, the number of new cases of melanoma in Arkansas, based on statistics from the American Cancer Society and the American Academy of Dermatology, ranges between 400 and 1,000 per year.
The good news is that new treatments have improved, and survival rates have increased. “Years ago, if you had cancer that spread to lymph nodes, you had maybe a 30 percent chance you would survive five years,” Wong said. “The survival rates have increased.”
Better skin care can be as simple as incorporating sunscreen into your daily skincare regime. “I tell my patients they should protect themselves from the sun every day, even in winter, because you’re still getting UV radiation,” Henry said.
An ounce of prevention is still worth a pound of cure when it comes to avoiding skin cancer. Limit your exposure to UV rays by:
- Wearing UV-filtering sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat, and by staying in the shade when possible.
- Doing outdoor activities early in the morning or late afternoon, avoiding the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are the strongest.
- Staying out of tanning beds.
- Using a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB rays, with an SPF or 30 or higher every day. Reapply it often when swimming and exercising.
- If you get a burn, treat it quickly: Get out of the sun immediately, take a cool shower or bath, and apply moisturizing lotion to soothe your skin.
- The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends yearly skin checks by a doctor for everyone 18 and older. Check your skin monthly. Make note of any new moles or growths or changes to any existing moles. If you find changes or something that concerns you, see a doctor.
Know Your ABCDEs
Moles, brown spots and skin growths are generally harmless. Know your ABCDEs of skin cancer. When checking moles and growths, pay particular attention to:
“A” for asymmetry — if you were to draw a line through the middle of the mole and it is NOT symmetrical, this could be a warning sign of melanoma.
“B” for border irregularity — a benign or noncancerous mole has smooth, even borders.
“C” for color variation — a skin spot that has different colors or shades is a warning signal.
“D” for a diameter greater than 6 mm or ¼-inch — generally a benign mole is small; check the size using a pencil’s eraser.
“E” for evolution — common moles look the same over time; any change is cause for concern.