Early detection, prevention critical for skin cancer
While many people see a tan as fashionable, it’s important to remember that tanned skin is damaged skin and that over time, damaged skin can lead to skin cancer.
Dr. Scarlett Aldrich with Plastic Surgery Specialists of Lawrence said sun protection is the easiest way to reduce your risk of skin cancer. She said you should wear a sunscreen of SPF 30 or greater on a daily basis.
“It’s a good idea to put it on daily, because even brief outdoor exposures add up in the long run,” Aldrich said.
Aldrich said that people who are outdoors for long periods of time should apply sunscreen at least once every two hours, and that wearing protective clothing that covers the body — long sleeves, hats, sunglasses — can reduce the damage to your skin. Some kinds of clothing are designed to block ultraviolet light while remaining cool and breathable.
It’s also important to limit your exposure to the sun at times when UV light is at its peak — from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Aldrich said that while summer is the time when most people think about skin protection, some types of UV rays are consistent year-round and can penetrate windows and windshields.
Seeking out a tan — using a tanning bed, for instance — is also dangerous and can increase your risk of cancer.
While UV exposure plays a major part in skin cancer risk, there are other factors, too, including genetics.
“If you have a family history of melanoma, you are at higher risk of developing it yourself,” Aldrich said. “There are also familial traits that may be passed down that put you at higher risk, including fair skin, freckles, blonde or red hair and light-colored eyes.”
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Skin cancer can be removed if it’s discovered early, but Aldrich said people shouldn’t underestimate the danger. It can be deadly, especially the serious variety known as melanoma, which affects thousands of Americans every year.
“Melanoma can be curable if caught in the earliest stages,” Aldrich said.
Other types of skin cancer can be fatal, too, including a rare variety called Merkel-cell carcinoma that typically looks like a flesh-colored or purple nodule on the skin, Aldrich said.
“This is why it is important to monitor and pay attention to your body and skin,” she said. “The earlier you seek treatment, the better your chances of removal.”
What kinds of skin abnormalities should patients be looking for? A good way to remember the signs of skin cancer is the mnemonic “A-B-C-D-E”:
• A — Asymmetry. One half of the lesion does not match the other.
• B — Borders. The edges of the lesion are irregular or uneven.
• C — Color. The lesion has uneven pigmentation or a variety of colors — brown, tan or black.
• D — Diameter. The lesion is larger than 6 millimeters across, about the size of a pencil eraser.
• E — Evolution. The lesion changes in size, shape or color or shows symptoms like itching or bleeding.
“If you have any new or concerning lesions, you should see your doctor right away,” Aldrich said. “You know your body best, so trust your instincts if something seems off.”
Aldrich also emphasized that young people can develop skin cancer, too. It is more common as people age, but it can occur at any time in life. Aldrich said that if you consistently neglect to protect your skin, your skin cells can suffer DNA damage and may eventually become cancer cells.
Dr. Andrew Meyer, an oncologist with the LMH Health Cancer Center, said that even the most severe kinds of skin cancer are seen in young adults.
“Melanoma is actually quite common in younger adults,” he said. “This can be due to UV light exposure, tanning bed use and intense sun exposure without protection.”
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Meyer said the goal for all skin cancers is early detection. If they’re caught before they can spread to other parts of the body, they’re usually easy to treat.
“Skin cancers can become more advanced if they go unnoticed,” Meyer said. “It gets more complicated if it spreads to lymph nodes or other parts of the body. This may require a more extensive surgery and potential post-surgical treatment like radiation or immunotherapy.”
The two main types of skin cancer are melanoma and nonmelanoma, Meyer said. The latter kind is considered less aggressive, and the outcome is often good when it’s caught early and removed surgically. But melanoma is much more dangerous and must be caught even earlier, he said.
Meyer said nonmelanoma skin cancers can be found anywhere on the body but often appear in areas that are frequently exposed to the sun, like the face, hands, arms, legs, scalp and ears. Melanoma can show up in other places, too: on the soles of your feet, under your fingernail beds or on the palms of your hands, for instance.
“This is why it is important to monitor your skin closely and to check places that may seem strange or be hard to see, such as your hands and your back,” Meyer said. “If you have concerns, do not be afraid to contact your primary care provider.”
Aldrich urges people to remember that their skin is their first line of defense from the outside world — you have to protect your skin so it can protect you.
She also said that although UV rays increase the risk of cancer, “the sun is not the enemy.”
“There are so many health benefits related to sunlight,” she said. “It fights off depression, helps you sleep better, reduces stress, keeps your bones strong and strengthens your immune system, among many others. Get outside and enjoy the sun; just do it safely.”
More about the cancer center
The LMH Health Cancer Center is home to physicians who have trained at NCI-designated cancer centers, and it also offers multidisciplinary care teams and regional partnerships. Patients at the center have access to clinical trials, genetic testing, support programs, survivorship resources and a cancer prevention program. LMH Health also holds accreditation from the Commission on Cancer.
To learn more about the LMH Health Cancer Center, visit lmh.org.
— Jessica Brewer is the social media and digital communications specialist at LMH Health, which is a major sponsor of the Journal-World’s Health section.