The Warning Signs of Skin Cancer

Skin cancers — including melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma — often start as changes to your skin. They can be new growths or precancerous lesions — changes that are not cancer but could become cancer over time. An estimated 40% to 50% of fair-skinned people who live to be 65 will develop at least one skin cancer. Learn to spot the early warning signs. Skin cancer can be cured if it’s found and treated early.

Skin cancer symptoms may vary slightly depending on the type of skin cancer, but careful observation can alert you to potential issues before they become more serious. Any unusual changes to the skin, including changes in the size or color of a mole, a new growth or spot, or areas that appear scaly, ooze, bleed or look discolored should be reported to your doctor right away. Likewise, if pigmentation (around a mole, for example) seems to spread beyond the border, the area should be examined by a doctor. Other things to look for include patches of skin that are itchy, tender or painful, or sores that don’t heal or take a long time to heal.

How To Prevent Skin Cancer: Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, diagnosed in more than one million Americans and responsible for nearly 10,000 deaths every year. On the other hand, it’s also one of the most preventable types of cancer. Try the following practical, prevention-focused tips:

  1. Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen, and did I mention Sunscreen? The American Cancer Society recommends daily use of a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 15. Be sure to reapply every two hours when you’re out. Commonly missed spots include the scalp, backs of hands, and neck. Try to find a broad-spectrum sunscreen that filters out ultraviolet A and B (UVA and UVB) rays.
  2. Avoid peak hours. The harmful UV rays of the sun are strongest when it’s directly overhead (between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.), so do your best to avoid sun exposure during those times. Remember that UV intensity doesn’t have to do with temperature or the brightness of the sun — it’s about the angle of the rays. So, even if you don’t think it feels particularly hot outside, you could be doing serious damage to your skin during these peak hours.
  3. Wear a hat. Hats are an easy way to protect yourself from the sun. The American Cancer Society recommends a hat with “at least a 2- to 3-inch brim all around to protect the neck, ears, eyes, forehead, and scalp.” Avoid straw hats because they often aren’t finely woven and can let some of the UV rays reach your skin. Whichever hat you choose, make sure that it’s comfortable. It’s not going to protect you if you end up taking it off!
  4. Skip the tanning bed. A study of 106,000 Scandinavian women concluded that those who used a tanning bed at least once a month boosted their skin cancer risk by 55 percent. And if such tanning sessions began during the women’s 20s, the numbers were even higher. For a safer alternative to the sun-kissed look, try a self-tanning lotion or spray-on tanning, which interact with the amino acids in the skin’s surface to create a browner tone but don’t involve melanocytes (skin cells that can become skin cancer). Or, try the safest option of all: a temporary bronzer.
  5. Wear protective clothing. It’s important to cover the skin whenever possible, but not all clothing provides the same benefits. A white T-shirt, for instance, only provides the equivalent protection of a sunscreen with an SPF of 4. Better bets and safer solutions are darker colors or tightly woven fabrics. You can also wash an SPF solution into your clothes: SunGuard gives fabrics an SPF level of 30, and the manufacturer says it lasts for up to 20 washes.
  6. Shield your eyes. Skin cancer can affect the eyes as well, creating a condition known as ocular skin cancer. As with skin cancer of the skin, excessive exposure to sunlight is a risk factor. Fair-skinned and blue-eyed people are most susceptible, and in recent decades, the number of cases of ocular skin cancer has increased dramatically. To better protect yourself, choose wraparound-style sunglass frames that cover the delicate skin around the eyes, and be sure to get a pair that block UVA and UVB light — if they’re labeled “meets ANSI requirements,” that means that they effectively block 99 percent of UV rays. ANSI stands for the American National Standards Institute
  7. Protect your lips. You might think wearing opaque lipstick counts as sunblock, but think again: That fire-engine red coating only provides an SPF of 10 at best. And lip gloss could actually intensify the sun’s rays (similar to tanning with baby oil). There are plenty of balms and lipsticks with an SPF of 30 — seek out broad-spectrum products that protect against both UVA and UVB rays. And don’t forget to reapply every few hours and especially after eating!
  8. Check for moles often. Check your moles regularly, especially if you have a family history of skin cancer. The National Cancer Institute suggests standing naked in front of a full-length mirror. Begin with the face and work your way downward. Use a handheld mirror for hard-to-see areas. Look for a change in moles, particularly a new black mole or a change in outline, shape, size, color, or feel. It’s a good idea to take pictures or notes. If you notice any changes, see your doctor right away.
  9. Be careful of reflected sunlight. Direct sunlight isn’t the only culprit. Ultraviolet (UV) rays that reflect off of water, sand, concrete, and bright-white painted areas can also damage your skin — and cause skin cancer. That’s why it’s a good idea to wear sunscreen every day, even if you’re planning to stay in the shade. When you’re skiing, snow packs a double whammy because it reflects the sun’s rays, and skin burns faster at higher altitudes. So, be sure to slather on an extra shot of sunscreen before you hit the slopes!
  10. Avoid getting sunburned. Sunburns pack a powerful punch that doesn’t go away when the temporary redness fades: The damage a UV burn does to your skin can rear its head years or decades later in the form of skin cancer. In fact, having five or more sunburns in your lifetime doubles your chances of developing skin cancer. Take the time to protect yourself. And if you’re a parent, be sure to protect your children — they’ll thank you later.

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