Skin Cancer, Already the #1 Most Diagnosed Cancer,
Continues to Escalate in All Ages: How to Recognize & Prevent
It every year, more than 1 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer are diagnosed in the United States. Another 59,600 people will be diagnosed a year with the more serious (and far less common) melanoma skin cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Although most cancer deaths are caused by melanoma–about 7,800 of the total 10,600 skin cancer deaths each year–non-melanoma skin cancers are a serious concern.
And, they’ve been increasing among young adults for the last 30 years, according to a new study published in the August 10 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Said Leslie Christenson, M.D., Mayo Clinic dermatologist and lead investigator of the study:
“Because non-melanoma skin cancers generally occur in persons after 50, very little attention has been paid to their incidence in younger adults and children. We have discovered that these cancers are becoming increasingly prevalent in younger people, and if steps are not taken at a young age to prevent these cancers, we may see an exponential increase in the overall occurrence of non-melanoma skin cancers.”
What’s Causing the Increase?
Most cases of non-melanoma skin cancer are sun-related, says the American Cancer Society. The JAMA study researchers agree, saying long-term or intense sun exposure and the use of tanning beds are likely the key reasons behind the increase. Other factors include increased exposure to UV light, ozone depletion and increased detection, they say.
How to Recognize Skin Cancer Early On
Most skin cancers spotted early on are curable. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends getting a yearly skin exam by your doctor, along with performing your own self-examination once a month.
You should check all areas of your body–even those not exposed to the sun. This includes your scalp, palms of hands, soles of feet, underarms, stomach, etc. Use a mirror for those hard-to-see places. You’re looking for what The Skin Cancer Foundation and other organizations call the “ABCDs” of moles and melanoma.
Here’s what to look for:
- Asymmetry: Most melanomas are asymmetric (a line down the middle will not split it evenly in half).
- Border: Melanomas may have irregular borders with scalloped or notched edges. Normal moles will have a smoother border.
- Color: Melanomas typically have varied shades of brown, tan or black, and may later progress to red, white and blue. Normal moles are usually a single shade of brown.
- Diameter: A melanoma may be larger than a regular mole, or at least the size of a pencil eraser (about 1/4 inch in diameter). They may be smaller, however.
Further, you should watch for changes in regular moles, such as changes in color, size, elevation, sensation (like itching) or shape. If you notice anything suspicious, see your doctor right away.
How to Prevent Skin Cancer
Ironically, while too much sun exposure can lead to skin cancer, smart sun exposure can actually help to prevent it. Sun exposure is the body’s primary source of making vitamin D, and vitamin D reduces the risk of a host of cancers, including skin, colon, breast, prostate and others.
Among the many studies that have found such results is one in the February 2, 2005 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that confirmed that exposure to the sun reduces the risk of skin cancer.
Said Dr. Michael Thun, the chief epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society, “There is now intriguing evidence that vitamin D may have a role in the prevention as well as treatment of certain cancers.” He says the Society is even reviewing its sun protection guidelines in response.
The key, however, is to get sun exposure in a safe way. Here are some tips:
- Get some sun, but don’t stay out long enough to get burned.
- When going outdoors for extended periods, use a safe sunblock with an SPF of 15 or higher.
- Use a hat, umbrella, sunglasses (with UV-absorbing lenses) and clothing to block the sun when you’ve had enough.
- Avoid using tanning beds.
- Keep in mind that people with dark skin may need six to 10 times more sun exposure to get healthy levels of vitamin D than people with fair skin.
Other useful tips for preventing skin cancer (and other types of cancer) include eating a healthy diet rich in antioxidant foods (fruits, vegetables, etc.) and exercising regularly.