With the extreme weather everyone has experienced this year—most notably the high UV indexes and more frequent sunshine—it felt like an appropriate time to talk about the importance of performing regular self-skin checks to protect yourself and your loved ones from skin cancer.
What is skin cancer?
In simple terms, skin cancer occurs when the different types of cells that make up the skin start to have uncontrolled growth and reproduction.
The three types of skin cancer are basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma. Basal cell cancers are the most common while melanoma is the most serious, as it can metastasize (spread) to other parts of the body.
How does skin cancer develop?
Prolonged sun exposure and indoor tanning are the biggest risk factors for developing skin cancer. Individuals with lighter or more fair skin are more prone to develop skin cancer. Additionally, a family history of skin cancer can put you at higher risk regardless of your complexion.
Direct sunlight exposure between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. is when people get the most UV rays. Additionally, locations that are closest to the equator have the strongest UV rays.
Skin cancer warning signs
Any new or changing skin lesion should be evaluated by a doctor to ensure that it is not concerning. Basal cell skin cancers typically appear round in shape and are either flesh-colored or pinkish. Squamous cell cancers are often scaly in texture, flesh-colored or pinkish, and tend to bleed and then heal and bleed again. Melanomas are usually very dark in color and may have an irregular border. They often appear as new growths and get larger over time.
How to protect yourself
It’s best to avoid direct sunlight when the UV rays are strongest (generally 10 a.m.–2 p.m.) Wear long-sleeved clothing and apply a good SPF sunscreen every 60–80 minutes while outdoors.
SPF stands for “sun protection factor.” The SPF number tells you how long the sun’s UVB rays would take to redden your skin. For example, SPF 30 means that it would take 30 times longer to redden your skin than if you weren’t wearing sunscreen. An SPF of 15 blocks about 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks about 97% of UVB rays, and SPF 50 blocks about 98% of UVB rays.
You should also avoid using tanning beds or lying in the sun simply to get a tan.
How to perform a self-skin check and how often to do so
You should always keep an eye on your sun-exposed skin for changes or new growths. However, a full self-skin exam should be done at least once a year to look at all your skin. Be in a brightly lit room with a full-length mirror. Look at the front and back of your entire body, and use a second mirror to see your back. Examine the front and back of your arms and legs, the tops and bottoms of your feet, the palms and backs of your hands, and underneath your fingernails. You should also make sure to check your ears and try to examine your scalp or have someone else look if possible.
Is skin cancer curable?
If caught early, most skin cancers are curable with local excision. Basal cell cancers and squamous cell cancers grow locally and generally do not metastasize (spread) to other areas of the body. However, melanoma can grow deep into the skin which is called “invasive melanoma.” If it grows deep into the skin and enters the lymph nodes it can spread to other parts of the body which is called metastatic melanoma which is a very serious type of cancer.
Just like other types of cancer, early detection will give you the best chance of fighting it successfully. Be sure to protect yourself and your loved ones with the tips highlighted above, and be sure to speak with your doctor if you notice any unusual spots or growths on your skin.