How To Lower Your Skin Cancer Risk This Summer
The official start of summer is June 21, but in Texas there are few days on the calendar when guarding against sun damage shouldn’t be a priority. Summer brings us outdoors more with a variety of activities and abundant sunshine. As an oncologist, I am all too familiar with the consequences of sun exposure. In fact, this year approximately 2,400 Texans will get melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Nearly 10,000 Americans are projected to die from melanoma in 2015.
So, how does the sun cause damage? When you expose your skin to the sun, it absorbs UVA and UVB rays that create changes in skin cells. Often these changes are temporary: the skin tans, burns, or freckles. In the long term, they can have lasting impact – wrinkles, premature aging, and skin cancer, including melanoma which originates from DNA mutations caused by UV rays. Living in Texas exposes all of us to much higher amounts of UV rays than most of the country. In fact, only a handful of major cities in the U.S. have higher annual UV exposure than Dallas-Ft Worth.
If you have darker skin, you may not burn as easily as someone more fair-skinned, but this does not prevent long-term sun damage. Children are particularly vulnerable as they often are not thinking about risk of sunburn and they accrue extensive sun exposure that puts them at a much higher risk of melanoma in adulthood because of it. Everyone is at risk of melanoma and can benefit from sun protection.
Use Sunscreen Liberally. Use sunscreen, generously, with at least 30 SPF and reapply at least every two hours. If you’re swimming or sweating a lot, use water-resistant sunscreen, and reapply more often, every 40 to 60 minutes. Be careful to take care of those “forgettable” places like the tops of your ears and your feet.
Dress for Skin Safety Success. Sun protection is not just for the beach or pool. The Texas sun shines brightly everywhere, so it’s important to dress properly. Wear long pants and shirt sleeves when it’s a reasonable option. Protect your scalp, ears, and face with a wide-brimmed hat, and shield your eyes with sunglasses. Eye damage from sun exposure is common and can include melanoma as well.
Stay Ahead of Sun Damage. Keep a portable sunscreen bottle and hat with you whenever you can. Try to prepare for occasions when sun exposure may be a significant problem that you might not anticipate. Situations such as attending a Rangers game, a surprise stop to play miniature golf with the kids, or a trip to the dog park, etc. can often lead to as much sun damage as laying by the pool, but we often forget to prepare for them. Children are at particular risk so talk to them about using sunscreen and reapplying it, avoiding unnecessary exposure, and quickly getting out of the sun when they exhibit signs of sunburn.
Avoid Tanning Beds. It’s very common to see younger patients with melanoma that have a history of heavy tanning bed use and the extra UV rays that they bring. It’s simply not worth the risk, and the premature aging and wrinkles are a common cause of regret in former tanning bed users.
Fortunately, the most prevalent forms of skin cancer often are the most treatable. When caught at the earliest stages, basal and squamous cell skin cancers usually can be treated with outpatient procedures. More serious forms of skin cancer, like melanoma, are rarer but can be fatal. It’s important to self-examine your skin frequently and have a family member or friend check your back and areas you aren’t able to see well. If you find something suspicious, have your primary care physician or dermatologist look at it immediately. The earlier melanomas and other skin cancers are found the less risk one will have and the less aggressive the treatments required will be.
Dr. Scott Fleischauer is a medical oncologist on the medical staff at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital. Dr. Fleischauer’s office, Texas Oncology-North Arlington, is located at 902 W. Randol Mill Road, Suite 150 in Arlington, Texas, and can be reached by calling 817-664-9600.