With spring finally in the air, most of us can’t wait to get outside and soak up some sun. With May being Skin Cancer Awareness Month, it's a great time to be reminded about the importance of skin care, particularly when it comes to protecting it from damaging and potentially cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation.
With more than five million diagnosed cases a year, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, according to the Skin Cancer Prevention Foundation and the American Cancer Society. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their lives. Most forms of skin cancer and melanoma stem from extended exposure to UV rays.
Despite how prolific it is, skin cancer is very preventable — although many people aren’t aware of the symptoms or don’t think enough about skin irregularities to get them tested.
For skin cancer survivors like Andrew King, a simple trip to his primary care physician was all it took to put skin care into focus, and potentially saved his life.
King, a recently retired educator who taught for 30 years at Morrisville High School, was diagnosed with melanoma in 2013. King met with a dermatologist after his brother recommended he get a mole examined. Although he had thought nothing of the mole, the biopsy came back positive for melanoma. Thankfully, it was diagnosed early enough for King to have it surgically removed before the cancer spread.
Symptoms like King’s mole frequently go unchecked until the cancer has become incurable. But how can you spot the signs of skin cancer and curb it in time? While finding a dermatologist may be the most effective method, self-examinations are easy, quick and will make you generally more aware of your skin and your skin-care needs.
Moles are the focal point in determining the presence of skin cancer. Almost everyone has moles, and most are innocuous, but specific characteristics including size and color can help differentiate the good from the bad. The American Academy of Dermatology has online resources to help spot these characteristics, as well as which areas of the body to pay close attention to when self-examining. In general, any suspicious-looking growths should be promptly examined by a skin care professional or primary care physician.
Spotting something early can be all the difference.
“If you start paying closer attention to the smaller things, you can catch them before they’re real big issues,” King says.
Even with these tools and resources at our disposal, skin cancer awareness and prevention should begin at an early age. King’s dermatologist determined the melanoma developed because of extended exposure to UV radiation when he was young. While in high school, he worked as a painter during his summers, and admitted that using sunscreen or otherwise protecting his skin never really crossed his mind.
The sobering experience of being diagnosed with skin cancer and the relief of overcoming it have given King newfound perspective. He is more conscious, not only of his own health, but the health of the youths he coaches. As a coach of soccer and baseball at Morrisville, King always made sure to have sunscreen on-hand for his players, and he recommends every coach do the same.
Now 59 and retired, King can look at his future with hope of a healthy next chapter.
“The game plan is to live healthy for a bunch of years so I can go out, travel and enjoy my retirement,” he says.
Skin cancer typically develops from compounded years of UV damage, so gifting knowledge and responsibility to our children early in their lives is a good way to ensure their skin stays healthy as they grow into adults. Skin protection is rather straightforward: The goal is to simply avoid extended exposure of bare skin to sunlight.
The easiest remedies are to find spots of shade or wear clothing that completely covers your skin. Of course, wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt isn’t always practical, so properly applying sunscreen is the next best method. Sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher is recommended for adequate protection against burns. Look for the words "broad spectrum" as well, which means it protects from both UVA and UVB rays.
Timing is also important, as applying sunscreen is most effective if done well before being exposed to the sun. Reapplying is also key, and is a step that many people overlook. Sunscreen should be applied every two hours, especially after swimming or sweating.
Most kids do not understand the importance of skin care, and teenagers — who as a group often have a misguided sense of invulnerability — are often lax when it comes to being vigilant in such matters. Getting them used to these sun-safe habits at a formative age is crucial.