By: Lori Eaton, Internal Marketing & Communications Associate, Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Center
My mother always used to say an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure and though I ignored her advice many times at my peril, I know that when it comes to protecting my skin from the sun, it’s advice worth listening to.
Just a few days ago, my father mentioned that he visits a dermatologist every six months to have the new basal and squamous cells that have appeared on his hands and face removed. I’ve begun to wonder if that is in the cards for me as well.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S. with more the two million people diagnosed annually. There are more new cases of skin cancer diagnosed every year than cases of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers combined. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. It’s the price we pay for our love affair with the sun.
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer (8 out of 10 skin cancers) with squamous cell carcinoma a distant second (2 out of 10 skin cancers). Both of these cancers typically appear on sun-exposed areas of the body – face, ears, neck, lips and backs of hands. Melanoma accounts for less than five percent of skin cancers but causes the vast majority of deaths. Melanomas can occur anywhere but are most likely to appear on chest and back in men and legs in women.
That ounce of preventive advice I was talking about before is probably pretty obvious now. The sun we Michiganders love so much doesn’t love us back. Protecting our skin from sun exposure is definitely in our best interest but that doesn’t mean we have to stay inside.
“Slip! Slop! Slap!® and Wrap”
The American Cancer Society suggests that we “Slip! Slop! Slap!® and Wrap” to protect our skin from the harmful UV rays that do most of the damage.
- Slip on a shirt – there are companies that make comfortable, lightweight clothing that still protect against UV exposure
- Slop on sunscreen – 30 SPF (sun protection factor) or higher is recommended, any sunscreen with lower than 15 SPF must now include a warning label that states it only prevents sunburn not skin cancer. Be sure to check expiration dates when you dig out last summer’s sunscreen.
- Slap on a hat – something with a 2-3 inch brim all the way around works best to give coverage to ears, nose and back of the neck
- Wrap on sunglasses to protect the eyes and the skin around them
Another good choice is to become a shade lover. This is my go-to solution and allows me to spend as much time as I want to outside in warm weather. It’s even more important to seek shade between 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. when the sun is strongest.
Early detection saves lives
If your miss spent youth was spent lying in the sun like mine was, two of the most important things you can do is give yourself a once-over once a month and have a full-body skin exam performed by a dermatologist or health care professional once a year.
For your once-a-month exam, grab a mirror and follow the five steps the experts here at Karmanos recommend:
- Examine your body front and back in the mirror, then lift your arms and look at your left and right sides.
- Bend your elbows and look carefully at your forearms then upper underarms and finally palms and backs of hands.
- Look at the backs of your legs and feet; check the spaces between your toes and the soles of your feet.
- Examine the back of your neck and scalp with a hand held mirror; part your hair and take a closer look.
- Finally, check your back and buttocks with a hand held mirror.
What are you looking for exactly?
- A change in the number, size, color or surface of a mole or darkly pigmented spot.
- A new growth or a sore that does not heal.
- The spread of pigmentation past the edge of a mole or mark.
- Moles with a change in sensation – itchiness, tenderness or pain.
While changes in your skin aren’t always a sign of cancer, it is important to see your health care provider if any changes last longer than two weeks. Remember, cancer is most curable in its early stages.
Talk to your doctor about treatment options
Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers and pre-cancerous cells are frequently treatable by a dermatologist with minor surgery or other types of localized treatment. If the cancer is more advanced or if you have melanoma or another form of skin cancer, you may need to see a specialist, such as a surgical or medical oncologist. What’s most important is that you see your doctor to find out what treatment is right for you.
Even advanced stages of skin cancer are treatable, thanks to researchers and physicians who are working hard to find a cure. Recently, WDIV Local 4 Health Reporter Dr. Frank McGeorge talked with Heidi Gross, a pharmacist from Midland, Mich., who had no idea that the lump on her leg was metastatic melanoma. Under the care of Lawrence Flaherty, M.D., leader of Karmanos’ Melanoma Multidisciplinary Team, Heidi joined a Phase I clinical trial. After 18 months, she is doing well. Watch her story now.
Now that spring is finally here and summer is just around the corner, plan to enjoy the sun wisely. And yes, I know. I’m starting to sound just like my mother.