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Checking for Skin Cancer After a Summer of Sunshine

Daniel Hagon

October 15, 2020

Summer is over and winter is well on its way, but the risks associated with the sun are far from gone. Melanoma, which is a type of skin cancer, is caused by exposure to the sun, something we have all been taking advantage of as the coronavirus has limited our indoor options. Why is this such a concern? Well, in 2017, there were 85,686 new melanoma cases and 8,056 melanoma deaths in the US — a mortality rate of almost 10%.

So who is most at risk from skin cancer, what can you do to prevent it and how can you check whether or not you have it?

Who Is Most at Risk?

There are a number of factors that influence whether or not a person will get skin cancer, including skin color, gender and age. However, one factor we can control is the exposure to ultra-violet (UV) rays.

Interestingly, records show that men have been more likely to get skin cancer, with 29 out of every 100,000 men being diagnosed compared to 18 women in 2017. The CDC has identified a number of reasons for this:

  • Historically, men have been more likely to work outside
  • Many women’s personal care products, such as moisturizer and makeup, contain sunscreen
  • Only 14% of men apply sunscreen when they are outside for more than an hour.

Likewise, white people are far more likely to get skin cancer. In fact, they are five times more likely to get it than the next risk factor group, which is American Indian/Alaska native, with 25 out of every 100,000 white people suffering from the disease compared to 5 American Indians/Alaska natives. Black people are the least at risk people group, with less than 1 in every 100,000 being diagnosed with the disease.

While this may all seem somewhat arbitrary and uncontrollable, one of the major causes of skin cancer is exposure to UV rays. Even 15 minutes in the sun without any kind of protection can cause damage to skin cells. A history of sunburns, particularly in early life, can therefore increase the risk of getting skin cancer.

Tanning booths are also responsible for hitting your body with harmful UV rays. UV exposure is cumulative, so the more times it damages your skin, the more likely you are to suffer from skin cancer.

This leads us to the greatest risk factor: age. Simply put, the older you are, the more likely you are to get skin cancer due to your exposure to UV rays. However, do not lose hope! How much of your body gets exposed to UV rays and for how long is something you can control.

What Can You Do to Prevent Skin Cancer?

Below are seven easy steps you can take to reduce your chances of getting skin cancer:

1. Stay in the shade

Whether it be a tree, an umbrella or the gazebo in your garden, sitting in the shade will decrease your chances of getting skin cancer as it reduces your exposure to UV rays, although sunscreen is more effective.

2. Wear appropriate clothing

Although it may not be appealing at the beach, long-sleeved shirts and long pants are far more likely to protect you from UV rays. T-shirts have a sun protection factor (SPF) of less than 15 and even less when wet, so you need to be aware that t-shirts alone will not protect you.

3. Wear hats

Wide-brimmed hats that cover your head, neck, face and ears are the best protection, as are tightly-woven materials, such as canvas. Straw hats contain holes so are not ideal, while you will need to put sunscreen on your neck and ears if you wear a baseball cap.

4. Wear sunglasses

Sunglasses are ideal in the sun as they protect you from UV as well as reduce your chances of getting cataracts. They also protect the sensitive skin around your eyes.

5. Put on sunscreen

It’s almost self-explanatory, but at the same time not many people know why sunscreen is so effective.

Sunscreen absorbs, reflects or scatters sunlight, and the chemicals it contains interacts with the sun to protect it from UV rays. It is therefore your best form of defense against UV rays. Even on cool or slightly cloudy days, SPF 15 is recommended due to how effective it is.

If your skin disagrees with your choice of sunscreen and that has put you off applying it to your skin on sunny days, you’ll be relieved to know that each brand uses different ingredients. It should therefore be easy enough to switch to a different brand which causes you no issues at all.

6. Reapply!

Commonly overlooked but extremely important. Sunscreen lasts for roughly two hours and will lose its effect if you’re outside for longer. Its effects are even less long-lasting if you swim, sweat or towel off. Reapplication is therefore vital in order to maintain protection.

7. Check the expiration date

Even if your bottle has no expiration date, sunscreen only has a shelf life of three years or less if you’ve kept it in hot temperatures. Make sure you buy a fresh bottle if you can’t remember when you bought your last bottle.

What Do I Need to Look Out For

All of this may feel like a lot to remember, or perhaps you haven’t been taking care of your skin in the last few years. While no one should panic, it helps to know what to look out for so you can catch any changes in your skin nice and early to reduce both your risk and invasiveness of treatment. Here are three easy steps you can follow:

1. Check Your Skin

The best way to check your skin is to use a full-length mirror in a well-lit room. If you can’t see certain parts of your body, use a hand-held mirror to find the best angle.

Most doctors will routinely check you over if you have a physical visit planned so if you have any concerns, or would just like to be checked over for peace of mind, arrange a visit with your personal doctor.

2. Know Your ABCs

The best way to check your skin is to use a full-length mirror in a well-lit room. If you can’t see certain parts of your body, use a hand-held mirror to find the best angle.

The ABCs are:

  • Asymmetry
    Most moles are pretty symmetrical. If the two sides of your mole don’t match, this could be a sign you have skin cancer.
  • Border
    Most moles have a natural, clear border. If the border of a mole looks patchy, blurry or jagged, you should consider seeing a specialist.
  • Color
    Typical moles have a solid brown color. If your mole is several colors or is black or dark purple, you should get it checked out.
  • Diameter
    Most moles are about a quarter of an inch in diameter, which is roughly the size of a pencil eraser. If they are new and already bigger than that, visit a doctor immediately.
  • Elevation
    Most moles should feel smooth and of a normal height. If any of your moles feel rough to the touch or excessively elevated, go and get it checked out.

However, most doctors will routinely check you over at a physical visit so if you have any concerns, or would just like to be checked over for peace of mind, arrange a visit with your personal doctor.

3. Other Types of Skin Cancer

Although less deadly and usually very treatable, basal and squamous cell carcinomas are more common, so it is important to be aware of what to look out for with these two types of cancer.

Basal cell:

  • Flat, firm pale or yellow areas and similar to a scar
  • Raised reddish patches that may be itchy
  • Small translucent, shiny or pearly bumps that are pink or red and which might have blue, brown or black areas
  • Pink growths with raised edges and a lower area in the center, which might have abnormal blood vessels spreading out like the spokes of a wheel
  • Open sores, perhaps with oozing or crusted areas, which don’t heal or heal then come back

Squamous cell:

  • Rough or scaly red patches which might crust or bleed
  • Raised growths or lumps, sometimes with a lower area in the center
  • Open sores, perhaps with oozing or crusted areas, which don’t heal or heal then come back
  • Wart-like growths

When in Doubt…

Not all cancers fit neatly into these categories. If you have any concerns at all, talk to a doctor so that they can put your mind at ease or arrange for swift action. Nothing is off limits: make sure you tell them if you have:

  • Any new spots
  • Any spot that doesn’t look like others on your body
  • Any sore that doesn’t heal
  • Redness or new swelling beyond the border of a mole
  • Color that spreads from the border of a spot into surrounding skin
  • Itching, pain or tenderness in an area that doesn’t go away or goes away only to come back
  • Changes in the surface of a mole, including oozing, scaliness, bleeding, or the appearance of a lump or bump