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Skin Cancer: Are You at Risk?

Skin Cancer - Risk Factors and Prevention

What is Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer occurs when skin cells become abnormal from damage, such as from sunburns, and then multiply to create lesions or growths on the skin. While not all skin cancers are preventable, you can reduce the risk with preventive strategies and medical screenings as needed for early detection.

Skin cancer affects one in five Americans and is more common in the United States than all other types of cancer, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Types of Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is categorized as melanoma or nonmelanoma.

Melanoma occurs in the melanocytes, which are the cells that create a darker pigment or tan in response to sun exposure. Melanoma is more likely than nonmelanoma cancers to spread around the body, which makes it the more dangerous type of skin cancer.

A far more rare type of skin cancer that can also metastasize is Merkel Cell Carcinoma.

Nonmelanoma skin cancers, which include basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, are less dangerous than melanoma when caught early, but they too can be fatal without proper treatment.
Both melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers are linked to sun exposure, making UV protection one of the most important steps in skin cancer prevention.

Skin Abnormalities and Precancer

Certain skin changes or abnormalities can indicate an increased risk of skin cancer.

One abnormality is an atypical mole, which is a mole with discoloration, irregular edges, a large diameter, an uneven shape, and any changes from its original appearance.

Although these moles are often noncancerous, they suggest a greater risk of melanoma and should be screened routinely. The risk is further heightened for people with numerous moles and/or a family history of melanoma.

Scaly skin is another abnormality that should be screened for potential cancer. Scales develop from several benign skin conditions, such as psoriasis and dermatitis, but they also form as a precancerous skin condition called actinic keratosis (AK) or solar keratosis.

Lesions from actinic keratosis look like small dry spots, and they may cause minor discomfort. People over 40 years of age with fair skin, compromised immune systems, or a history of frequent sunbathing are more prone to actinic keratosis, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Sun Exposure and Skin Cancer

The greatest underlying risk factor for skin cancer is frequent or excessive exposure to the sun. The sun emits two types of ultraviolet rays, called UVA and UVB rays, both of which can influence the development of cancer.

While UVB rays are responsible for short-term sunburns, UVA rays break down a deeper layer of the skin, and promoting wrinkles and other signs of aging. To protect the skin properly from sun damage, use products that block both UVA and UVB rays. Furthermore, avoid the use of tanning beds, which also emit both types of ultraviolet rays.

Sunscreen for Skin Cancer Prevention

Sunscreen lotions help protect the skin from sun damage by creating a chemical barrier to reflect UV rays. Each sunscreen is labeled with an SPF (sun protection factor) number to indicate its strength. The higher the SPF, the stronger the sunscreen.

Not all sunscreens shield against both UVA and UVB rays. Only broad-spectrum sunscreens provide protection from both types of ultraviolet light. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher for everyday sun exposure. For outdoor activities, the foundation recommends a water-resistant formula of at least SPF 30.

Sunscreen requires maintenance to stay effective. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourage reapplication of sunscreen lotion every two hours and also any time the lotion may have worn off from activity. Check the date on the bottle throughout the year to ensure the lotion is not expired.

You can further protect yourself by supplementing sunscreen with accessories and protective clothing, such as umbrellas, hats, and sunglasses. Babies under the age of six months should not wear sunscreen, according to the Mayo Clinic, so accessories and avoidance of direct sunlight are necessary to protect their skin from sun damage.

Skin Cancer Screenings

People without any sign or history of skin cancer do not require regular screenings. The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center recommends screening for people with several atypical moles, multiple patches of precancerous actinic keratoses, or a family history with two or more relatives with melanoma.

Contact your primary care provider, dermatologist or come into any of our emergency rooms to assess any suspicious skin conditions. Otherwise, continue to employ broad-spectrum sun protection and a healthy lifestyle to reduce your overall risk of developing skin cancer.

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