Understanding skin cancer risk and steps for prevention

DAYTON — Americans who once viewed sun-kissed noses and golden brown skin as an image of health are being urged by the country’s top health care leaders to think again.

Research has proven that exposure to ultraviolet radiation — no matter how long or from what source — dramatically increases an individual’s risk for skin cancer. In fact, the rate at which skin cancer cases have increased in the past four decades as well as the perceived lack of understanding by Americans of its risk recently led the U.S. Surgeon General to proclaim skin cancer as a public health crisis.

Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States, and yet most cases are often preventable, according to the Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer. The report is the first of its kind to address skin cancer as a major health concern and asks community leaders to help increase awareness of the disease and calls them to action to reduce its risk. In the past 40 years, the rate of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, grew by 800 percent in young women between the ages of 18 and 39 and 400 percent among young men, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Susan Davis-Brown, MD, a physician at Brookville Family Care, said individuals need to have an accurate understanding of ultra-violet radiation whether it comes from the sun or from indoor tanning.

“Sun worshippers tend to get skin cancer more than non-sun worshippers and people who choose not to take preventative measures — such as using sunscreen and wearing hats — are raising their risk for the disease,” said Dr. Davis-Brown, a Premier HealthNet physician. “We also need to have the proper perspective on what a tan really is. There are people who believe that getting a tan now will prevent them from getting a burn down the road, but it doesn’t make a difference. A tan is ultraviolet radiation to the skin and raises one’s risk for skin cancer.”

There are three main types of skin cancer: squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer and is not always caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Young children can get melanoma and it can also appear on areas of the body that have never been exposed to sun. Basal cell can be the least serious because it grows slowly and does not usually metastasize, Dr. Davis-Brown said.

Skin cancer is a risk to everyone. Risks can vary according to family history, lifestyle habits and certain genetic characteristics. For instance, Caucasians are at a greater risk than those with brown skin. Individuals with fair skin, red or blonde hair, freckles and blue eyes also tend to be at greater risk. Still, individuals should not adopt the notion that just because they never burn they are not at risk for skin cancer.

“You hear people say, ‘I have dark skin and don’t burn so I shouldn’t get skin cancer,’” Dr. Davis-Brown said. “But that is not exactly true. You may be less likely, but it never negates your chances.”

The rate of death from skin cancer has actually decreased despite the exponential increase of cases, the Skin Cancer Foundation said. This is credited to earlier diagnosis and the ability to catch melanoma at earlier stages. Dr. Davis-Brown said individuals can play an active role in skin cancer prevention by following these critical steps:

Stay out of the sun – Resist the temptation to lay out in the sun. Provide as much coverage on your skin as possible when playing or working in the sun, particularly in the winter when sports such as skiing at high altitudes can generate intense sun exposure. Wear brimmed hats and longer sleeved shirts when possible.

Use the right protection – Choose sunscreen that is SPF 30 and reapply it frequently regardless of its claims to be waterproof. Use a sunscreen that is broad spectrum so that you are protected against all forms of ultraviolet rays.

Do no use tanning beds – Those who use a tanning bed raise their risk for developing melanoma by 59 percent, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Tanning beds also expose individuals to UVA radiation, something not emitted from the sun but which expedites aging.

Be vigilant – Regularly check your skin for abnormalities and consider seeking a professional screening if you or someone in your family has a history of skin cancer.

“Skin cancer can look like anything,” Dr. Davis-Brown said. “Typically, it is anything new, larger than a pencil eraser and anything that scabs without propagation. Also, be aware of any moles that grow for no reason — such as weight gain or normal growth on a child.”

ABOUT PREMIER HEALTHNET: Premier HealthNet is one of the largest groups of pediatrics, family medicine, internal medicine, and urgent care practices in Southwest Ohio. For more information, visit www.premierhealthnet.com/news.

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