A little-known fact is that skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S.—outnumbering lung, prostate and breast cancers. One in five people has some form of skin cancer at some point. Those who have had five or more blistering sunburns have an 80 percent increased risk of skin cancer, and indoor tanning use before the age of 30 results in a 75 percent higher risk.
The good news is that the most common types of skin cancers—basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma—have a 90+ percent cure rate when caught early. Melanoma is one of the more dangerous and potentially aggressive skin cancer, with only a 23 percent survival rate if it spreads to other organs. If identified early, melanoma has a 98 percent survival rate.
It’s critical for men and women over 35 years of age to have annual skin examinations by a board-certified dermatologist. If you have significant risk factors, you should be examined earlier or more frequently, including a family history of melanoma, a personal history of skin cancer, pre-cancers or breast cancer, indoor tanning use, high sun exposure, certain medications such as immunotherapy medications, numerous moles and having very fair skin.
Along with adding dermatology visits to your routine health care schedule, give yourself regular skin checks. Each month, examine your skin in the mirror before or after a shower. Follow the ABCDEs of melanoma: asymmetry, border, color, diameter and evolving. Moles that aren’t symmetrical, have irregular borders, various colors, are larger than a pencil eraser or change over time should be checked by a dermatologist. Any growth that bleeds or won’t heal should also be looked at.
While you can’t erase past sun exposure, there are simple ways to prevent further skin damage. Don’t sunbathe or use indoor tanning booths or beds—getting a “baseline tan” doesn’t protect you from sunburns or from skin cancer. Cover up as much as possible when outdoors, including wearing a hat with a large brim to protect your ears and neck. I’ve treated skin cancers of the scalp in the part line of women’s hair, and hat use will prevent this from occurring.
Wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher every day, all year round—even during the winter and on cloudy days, because UV rays are still a risk. If you are outdoors for long periods of time, reapply sunscreen every two hours. In addition to skin cancer prevention, sunscreen prevents premature skin aging and fine lines.
There has been some recent confusion about the safety of sunscreen ingredients. The chemicals in sunscreen are FDA-approved and perfectly safe to use. They don’t cause health problems or hormone imbalances. If ingredients are a concern, chemical-free mineral sunscreens which contain zinc and/or titanium are available.
Protecting your skin from UV damage, and monitoring it along with your dermatologist, benefits your overall health by giving you greater control over skin cancer prevention.
Parisa Jordan, MD, MBA, MS, works in the Dermatology Department at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Nashua.
Learn more information about Dartmouth-Hitchcock's Dermatology Departments.