June 14, 2008

Skin Cancer 101: How to Protect Yourself

Summer begins in a week. That means the big golden orb in the sky won't be such a stranger.

But being exposed to the sun's ultraviolet A (UVA) light can increase your risk of developing skin cancer, including melanoma, which is the deadliest form of skin cancer, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Experts say one of the best ways to reduce that risk is to apply a good sunscreen that provides broad-spectrum protection.

"The recommendation now is to use an SPF 30 or higher sunscreen that also blocks UVA," said Dr. Jim Brazil with Olympic Dermatology & Laser Clinic in Olympia. "UVA causes melanoma."

For the most protection, sunscreen should be applied every two hours, even on cloudy days. It also should be applied after swimming or sweating.

Avoiding the use of tanning beds and sun lamps also lowers the risk of skin cancer, experts say.

"Research shows 70 percent of indoor tanners are female, primarily 16 to 29 years old, the age group that's particularly at risk for developing skin cancer," said Dr. Arielle Kauvar, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine. "We especially hope women who are using or consider using tanning salons will think twice about partaking in this risky behavior."

More facts, figures and prevention tips:

--Skin cancer 101: Melanoma has name recognition, but it isn't the most prevalent skin cancer.

Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are the most common forms of skin cancer. Both are easily treated if detected early.

"It's estimated that one out of three Americans will develop basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma," Brazil said. "I see those every day."

Basal cell carcinomas often are found on the head and neck.

"They tend to be a glistening, usually red tumor," Brazil said. "It gets bigger and more modular."

On other parts of the body, basal cell carcinoma looks more like a red, scaly patch. It often is misdiagnosed as ringworm or another rash, Brazil added.

Squamous cell carcinomas are rough, red tumors that can be tender to the touch. They grow fast and appear "like little volcanoes -- little heaped-up tumors," Brazil said.

Both cancers are found more often in fair-skinned older adults.

"The risk is almost entirely due to cumulative sun damage," Brazil said. "The clock starts when you are born, and as you're out in the sun, you build up a level of sun damage. At some point, you start developing malignant skin cells."

Melanomas look like an irregular mole. They often are asymmetrical (meaning one half does not match the other half), their borders are irregular and undefined, they can have multiple colors (for example, different shades of tan, brown or black can be present; dashes of red, white and blue can add to the mottled appearance), and they can grow larger than 6 millimeters in diameter.

"They get larger than a pencil eraser," Brazil said. "They're growing, unusual-looking moles."

One in 58 men and women will be diagnosed with melanoma during their lifetime, according to the Academy of Dermatology. They most often are found on men's backs, women's legs and on the faces of elderly people.

"When they're caught early, they can be cured," Brazil said. "But when they're allowed to grow, they can be difficult to cure. They can kill people."

--Other risk factors: Not all melanomas are exclusively sun-related. Experts also believe genetics and immune system deficiencies play a role in cancer.

"If your parent has one, then your risk goes up," Brazil said.

--More prevention tips: Besides slathering on sunscreen, experts recommend wearing protective clothing such as long-sleeve shirts, wide-brim hats and sunglasses, seeking shade when possible, and using extra caution near water, snow and sand because they reflect damaging sun rays that can increase your chance of sunburn.

"And keep in mind that the sun is the most intense between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.," Brazil added. "Try to schedule (outdoor) activities earlier and later when possible."

Sources: American Academy of Dermatology, The Skin Cancer Foundation

Lisa Pemberton writes for The Olympian. She can be reached at 360-704-6871 or [email protected]