This is a guest post by Kristen Nichols Heitman, MPH, an epidemiologist in the Rickettsial Zoonoses Branch in the Division of Vector-Borne Diseases in the National Center for Emerging Zoonotic and Infectious Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She received a Master of Public Health (MPH) with a concentration in epidemiology from Georgia State University.

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Summer is around the corner and for many people, that means taking advantage of warm weather and time outdoors: weekends at the pool, working in the garden or chasing kids at the park. However, exposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays increases the risk of skin cancer, the most common cancer in the United States. Plan for a sun-safe summer by learning the risk factors associated with skin cancer, symptoms to look out for and tips to stay safe while enjoying your favorite activities.

The Statistics are Staggering

More than 3.5 million skin cancers in over two million people are diagnosed annually. Current estimates are that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. The most dangerous type of skin cancer is melanoma, which is characterized by the uncontrolled growth of pigment-producing cells. Melanoma may suddenly appear on the skin or can develop on existing moles. This form of cancer is highly treatable when discovered early, but, when advanced, it can spread to lymph nodes and internal organs, which can result in death. It’s estimated that 10,130 people will die from melanoma in 2016 alone.

Skin cancer is caused by UV light, which is an invisible kind of radiation that can come from the sun, tanning beds and sunlamps. UV rays can penetrate the skin and change its cells. Research indicates that UV light from the sun and tanning beds can both cause melanoma and increase the risk of a benign mole progressing to melanoma.

Reduce Your Risk

The risk of melanoma increases with age — the average age at time melanoma is found is 62. However, it is not uncommon to find melanoma in those younger than 30. In fact, it is one of the most common cancers in young adults, and especially among young women. Additional factors that increase risk for skin cancer include:

  • Fair skin 
  • Skin that burns, freckles, reddens easily or becomes painful in the sun
  • Family or personal history of skin cancer
  • Indoor tanning
  • History of sunburns, especially when young
  • 50-plus moles, large moles or unusual-looking moles
  • Gender — men are at higher risk
  • Xeroderma pigmentosum (an inherited skin condition)
  • Smoking

Learn the ABCs of Skin Cancer

The most common sign of skin cancer is a change in your skin. This could be a new growth, a sore that doesn’t heal or  changes to a mole. The signs of melanoma can be remembered by the A-B-C-D-Es:

  • “A” is for asymmetrical. One half is unlike the other half.
  • “B” stands for border. An irregular, scalloped or poorly defined border.
  • “C” stand for color. Is varied from one area to another; has shades of tan, brown or black, or is sometimes white, red or blue.
  • “D” is for diameter. Melanomas are usually greater than 6mm (the size of a pencil eraser) when diagnosed, but they can be smaller.
  • “E” is for evolving. A mole or skin lesion that looks different from the rest or is changing in size, shape or color.

Many melanomas have these signs and symptoms, but not all. The American Academy of Dermatology urges everyone to examine their skin regularly. This means looking over your entire body, including your back, your scalp, your palms, the soles of your feet and between your toes. If you notice a mole different from others, or one that changes, itches or bleeds, (even if it is smaller than 6mm), make an appointment to see a board-certified dermatologist  as soon as possible.

Common Treatment Options

How a dermatologist treats a patient with melanoma depends on how deeply the melanoma has grown into the skin, whether the melanoma has spread to other parts of the body, and the patient’s health. Surgery is a common way to treat melanoma by removing it. Most procedures can be done in the dermatologist’s office during an office visit and the patient often remains awake during the procedure. In early stages, this may be the only treatment the patient needs.

If the melanoma is in advanced stages, more aggressive treatment may be used. This may include a lymphadenectomy (surgery to remove lymph nodes), immunotherapy (treatment to boost patient’s immune system to fight the cancer), targeted therapy (drugs are used to target and shrink the cancer), chemotherapy (medicine to kill the cancer cells), or radiation therapy (x-rays that kill cancer cells).

The outcome of these treatments depends on how deeply the melanoma has grown into the skin. If the melanoma is properly treated when it is in the top layer of skin, the cure rate is nearly 100 percent. If the melanoma has grown deeper into the skin or spread, the patient may die. The five-year survival rate for people whose melanoma is detected and treated before it spreads to the lymph nodes is 98 percent.

Play It Safe in the Sun

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends using a sunscreen with an SPF 15 or higher. However, sunscreen alone is not enough. To prevent skin cancer, follow these tips all year – not just when the sun is shining:

  • Seek shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Do not burn
  • Avoid tanning and UV tanning booths
  • Cover up with clothing, including a wide-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses
  • For extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher
  • Apply one ounce (2 tablespoons) of sunscreen to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours and immediately after swimming or excessive sweating
  • Keep newborns out of the sun – sunscreen may only be used on babies over the age of six months

Make getting an annual skin cancer screening a priority this summer – it’s easier to detect small changes and irregularities when you’re taking a proactive approach to your health! Not sure where to get started? The American Academy of Dermatology offers free skin cancer screenings. Make an appointment today!

The conclusions, findings, and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Public Health Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the authors’ affiliated institutions.

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