While skin cancer is the most prevalent cancer, it seems to be the least concerning to most people. Over 3.5 million non-melanoma skin cancers are diagnosed annually in the United States and 76,000 cases of melanoma, the most life-threatening, are estimated for 2014. However, working as a nurse, I have seen countless people shrug off these statistics and continue to expose themselves to ultraviolet radiation without fear of future consequences.
Just recently, government agencies and healthcare organizations have started to admit the dangers of tanning bed use and begin to consider banning use for minors in some states. Just as the dangers of cigarette smoke were ignored for so long, overexposure to UV rays from both the sun and artificial light sources have been disregarded only for people to realize too late.
I will never forget one poor patient that I had; she came into the office expecting to be told her symptoms were no big deal, only to find out that she had skin cancer that had progressed past the point of recovery. Do not allow yourself to become another victim of this preventable disease; make sure that you protect yourself from damaging UV rays and have any concerning lesions checked out by a healthcare professional immediately.
What to look for
There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.
Basal cell carcinoma typically is found on the neck or face and appears as a pearly or waxy bump or a flesh-colored or brown scar.
Squamous cell carcinoma is often found on the face, ears or hands and appears as a firm, red nodule or a flat lesion with a crusted surface.
Melanoma is the skin cancer that we are most familiar with and the most deadly. Remember the signs of melanoma using the ABCD rule: asymmetry, borders, color and diameter. Melanoma is usually characterized by a mole that is irregular in shape or asymmetrical, with irregular borders, an uneven color throughout and larger than ¼ inch or 6mm in diameter (the size of a pencil eraser).
Any changes in a mole should be checked out by a dermatologist. If you have an area that doctors have told you to keep an eye on, it is a good idea to take a picture and measure the area so that you have something to compare it to. It is very important to be aware of what is normal for your body and have any changes checked out. Time is a very important factor in recovery; cancer is much more treatable in the early stages.
Even more importantly, we want to try to prevent skin cancer from occurring if possible. Skin cancer, like all other cancers, occurs because of a mutation of normal cells. This mutation can be caused by different things, but an overexposure to UV rays is responsible for a majority of the cases. Therefore, the best way to protect yourself is by limiting the amount of ultraviolet rays that you are exposed to. When possible, avoid outdoor activities during the heat of the day, typically from 10:00 am-4:00 pm. When you are going to be outside, make sure that you wear sunscreen that is at least an SPF 30, which blocks out 97% of UVB rays. For those who are at a higher risk for sunburns, such as those with fair skin, elderly or children, wear a higher SPF. At the beginning of summer, I always use at least an SPF 50 or 70 on me and my children until we have a little tan to protect our skin. Those who have suffered really bad, blistering sunburns, especially as a child, or who have had multiple sunburns are at a much greater risk for developing skin cancer in the future. It is much easier to take the time now to apply sunscreen, then to have to deal with skin cancer in the future. It is also important to make sure you are applying sunscreen correctly. Use a waterproof formula; apply a generous amount to all parts exposed, including ears, hands and feet; and reapply at least every two hours when in the water or sweating. Children may get busy playing and forget, so it is sometimes helpful to set a timer on your phone when at the pool. Also, if you are going to be outside most of the day, make sure you have a shady place to retreat to, such as under an umbrella. Wear light layers of clothing and hats to protect skin as well.
Skin cancer is on the rise, and one of the largest factors is tanning bed use. People want to look young and tan, and just do not realize how harmful tanning bed use can be. I can remember going to the tanning bed before proms and homecomings as a young teenager, completely unaware of the damage I was doing. To put the dangers in perspective for you, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a part of the World Health Organization, has added tanning beds to the list of the most hazardous forms of cancer- causing radiation. Also on that list are plutonium and radium, which we would all consider deadly. The IARC research states that those who use tanning beds before the age of 30, or use tanning beds frequently, increase their risk of melanoma by 75% (http://www.skincancer.org/news/tanning/tanning-beds-who-issues-official-warning). With this in mind, my suggestion would be for those who long for that golden skin to resort to a spray tan instead. You can get the same results for a similar price, without the risk of skin cancer.
American Cancer Society, “Don’t Fry: Preventing Skin Cancer”, http://www.cancer.org/research/infographicgallery/skin-cancer-prevention?gclid=CMX8m7y6uL4CFUMF7AodtUAAzQ
Mayo Clinic, “Skin Cancer”, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/skin-cancer/basics/symptoms/con-20031606
Skin Cancer Foundation, “Tanning Beds: WHO Issues Official Warning”, http://www.skincancer.org/news/tanning/tanning-beds-who-issues-official-warning