Have you finally gotten into the habit of applying SPF 30 sunscreen on a daily basis? Do you stay covered up or take to the shade between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun’s rays are strongest? Have you been avoiding the tanning salon since Dynasty went off the air?
If so, you’re doing an exemplary job of preventing skin cancer, the most common cancer in men over 50 and third most common in women age 20-39. If not, you should go out right now and purchase broad spectrum sunscreen (protects against UVA and UVB rays) for you and your family–and start using it. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more than one million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year, and 1 in 5 Americans will develop the disease in the course of his or her lifetime.
Regardless of whether you are earning an A+ in skin-health or just hanging on with a solid C, there is one more piece of the puzzle that mustn’t be ignored–early detection. In fact, nearly all skin cancer cases can be successfully treated if caught early, and melanoma–the most serious form of skin cancer–is nearly 100% curable when diagnosed and treated in the early stages.
What to Look For
There are three types of skin cancer, and it helps to understand a bit about each one:
1) Basal Cell Carcinoma–This most common form of skin cancer is easy to treat when detected early and is not usually life threatening. It often resembles a pink growth, shiny bump or non-healing sore. It can be mistaken for other skin conditions like psoriasis or eczema, so it is important to see a doctor for a diagnosis.
2) Squamous Cell Carcinoma–This second most common form of skin cancer is not serious when detected early–however, it can cause disfigurement if ignored. It often resembles a thick, crusty red patch on the skin.
3) Melanoma–This form of cancer can move to other areas of the body if left untreated. Everyone is at risk for melanoma, but heredity also plays a major role. If close relatives have been diagnosed with skin cancer, it is even more crucial that you avoid overexposure to the sun.
Self-Exams: The Key to Early Detection
Everyone should see a dermatologist once a year for a full-body skin check. This is a totally painless process where the doctor will visually examine your whole body for suspicious moles or growths. The American Academy of Dermatology’s National Melanoma/Skin Cancer Screening program provides free cancer screenings across the country. Go to www.aad.org to find one in your area.
As important as it is to visit your dermatologist, self-exams are your secret weapon when it comes to early detection of skin cancer. Only you can keep tabs on your body closely enough to spot new moles and recognize changes in your skin. If you live with a spouse or partner, have the other person check your back and scalp and do the same for him or her. Skin cancer can turn up in places that aren’t usually exposed to direct sunlight, like the bottoms of the feet, so be thorough!
It only takes about 10 minutes once a month to perform self-exams. Come up with a creative way to remember–for example, do a skin self-exam every time you pay your electric bill. Here’s how:
– Stand in front of a full-length mirror in a well-lighted place.
– Look over your entire body, noting any changes and new or suspicious moles.
– Watch for signs of the “ABCD’s:” A is for asymmetry (one side of the mole doesn’t match the other side); B is for border irregularity; C is for color changes or uneven coloring; D is for diameter wider than a pencil eraser. If you notice any of these, see a dermatologist.
– Use a hand-held mirror to check the scalp, genitals and other hard-to-see places.
– Don’t forget nails, elbows, underarms and feet.
If you are consistent in caring for your skin and doing regular self-exams, you are much more likely to catch skin cancer in its early, most treatable stage.
Jay Brachfeld, M.D.
Sources: The American Academy of Dermatology web site (www.aad.org) and The Skin Cancer Foundation web site (www.skincancer.org).
Photo Credit: examiner.com