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Skin Cancer Tips from Dr. Qian

Zheng Qian, MD

As summer draws nearer and more people head outside to enjoy the sunshine, we’re reminded that May is Skin Cancer Awareness month.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, with nearly one in five Americans expected to develop the disease in their lifetime. More than 2 million Americans are diagnosed with some form of skin cancer annually – more than double all other cancers combined.

The good news is that skin cancers are often preventable, and they are often curable when detected early. Knowing the risk factors, common misconceptions and practicing good sun protection habits can help you safely enjoy the sunshine all year round.

Who’s at Risk

Skin cancer affects people of all ages, races, genders, and skin types. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light is the greatest risk factor associated with developing all forms of the disease. The sun is the primary culprit when it comes to UV exposure, but indoor tanning beds also emit the UV radiation that damages skin cells and leads to cancer. In fact, studies have found that those who use tanning beds are 59% more likely to develop melanoma, one of the deadliest forms of skin cancer.

We in the Pacific Northwest are more likely to develop skin cancer due, ironically, to our lack of sunshine in parts of the year. Recent studies have shown that intermittent sun exposure increases an individual’s risk of developing all three of the most common forms of skin cancer. Long winters with little sun exposure leave our skin less prepared for the sudden burst of sunshine during the summer, so it’s especially important that we protect our skin when the sun does come out.

Genetics are also a very important risk factor. A family history of skin cancer or having a close relative who has been diagnosed with skin cancer increases an individual’s risk. Having fair skin, red hair or blue eyes also increases the likelihood of developing skin cancer.

How to Protect Yourself

Here are a few simple, common sense steps you can take to safely enjoy the sun.

  • Cover up fully and use a wide-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses. Clothing is one of the simplest and most effective forms of sun protection.
  • Look for shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun’s harmful UV radiation is stronger.
  • Use a broad spectrum sunscreen every day with an SPF of 30 or higher that protects against UVA and UVB radiation. No sunscreen is completely waterproof, but water-resistant sunscreens are useful for extended periods of outdoor activity.
  • Apply sunscreen liberally (about one ounce) 30 minutes before going outside. SPF tests use a much thicker layer of sunscreen than what most people use on themselves, so use a generous amount to be fully protected.
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours, even if you’re using water-resistant sunscreen. Sweat, water, towel drying and other activities remove sunscreen’s protective layer.
  • Don’t burn. The risk of developing melanoma doubles with more than five sunburns during one’s lifetime.

How to Spot Skin Cancer

Early detection is key. Skin cancer survival rates go down dramatically the longer the cancer is allowed to grow. If you’ve never been checked by a dermatologist, make an appointment to get a screening for a more detailed assessment of your risk.

In addition, check your own skin regularly. Skin cancer often develops on sun-exposed areas of the body like the face, hands and ears. When looking at moles or spots on your skin, you can identify the warning signs of melanoma using the “ABCDE” method.

  • Asymmetry. One half is unlike the other half.
  • Border. Irregular, uneven or scalloped borders.
  • Color. The color varies from one area to another.
  • Diameter. Melanomas are typically wider than the head of an eraser (6mm) but can be smaller.
  • Evolution. This is the most critical sign. Is the mole or skin lesion changing in size, shape or color?

Many other types of skin cancer may merely look like a rash, a bump, or a sore. In general, if you have a rash that doesn’t clear, a growth that gets bigger, or a sore that doesn’t heal, you should make an appointment to get it checked by a dermatologist. Remember that skin cancer comes in many varieties that can go unnoticed by the untrained eye. Your dermatologist is the best person to check your skin.

Common Misconceptions

  • “Applying sunscreen once is enough.” Sunscreen wears off; reapply every two hours if you’re out in the sun and immediately after swimming.
  • “The sunscreen in my makeup/moisturizer will protect my face.” Most of these products have an SPF of 15, which is not enough to protect your skin from sunburn, and, like all sunscreens, they wear off after time. Apply sunscreen to your face just as you would the rest of your body.
  • “My skin is darker, so I don’t need to worry about skin cancer.” Anyone can get skin cancer, regardless of skin color. Not all skin cancers are the result of UV exposure, so it’s important to visit a dermatologist to get an assessment of your individual risk.

For more information about skin cancer detection and prevention, make an appointment to see a dermatologist or visit the American Academy of Dermatology’s website at www.aad.org.