Your Skin Is Protecting You, Make Sure You Protect It Too
The skin is the body’s first line of defense. It protects against all manner of microscopic invaders too small to be seen by your eyes. It also protects against the sun’s harmful radiation. But that protection comes at a cost, and that’s why it’s important to protect your skin.
Rays That Are Out Of This World
The sun produces more than just light we can see. It also produces ultraviolet (UV) radiation, most of which is filtered out by the Earth’s atmosphere. However, two types of UV radiation make it through, UV-A and UV-B. Here’s how to remember the difference: UV-A is for “aging,” making skin wrinkle and look older; UV-B is for “bad,” because it causes damage that can lead to skin cancer.
The DNA in skin cells is the blueprint that tells cells how to self-repair and reproduce. When too much UV-B radiation is absorbed, that DNA is damaged, which can cause cells to lose their ability to self-repair or reproduce properly. When that happens, those cells can turn into cancer.
Tanning beds also produce UV radiation to cause skin to tan, and that means they also cause damage that can lead to skin cancer. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Control and the National Cancer Institute strongly recommend against the use of tanning beds at all ages.
What To Watch For
Skin cancer comes in a few different types. The three most common are basal cell skin cancer, squamous cell skin cancer and melanoma. Basal and squamous cell cancers typically show up as discolored patches or raised areas that bleed and don’t heal, or that heal and then return repeatedly. While not as dangerous as melanoma, they are still very serious and if you suspect you might have one, you should have it checked by a physician as soon as possible.
On the other hand, melanoma is extremely dangerous because of how aggressive it is and how easily it spreads. Melanomas usually start as spots or moles (clusters of darker-colored skin cells). Most moles are benign, but they can change and become a melanoma.
The melanoma warning signs are as easy to remember as your ABCs:
- A is for Asymmetry: Imagine a line drawn down the middle of a mole or spot on your skin. Are the two halves mirror images? If not, that is a warning sign of melanoma.
- B is for Border: Melanomas tend to have rough, ragged or uneven borders or edges.
- C is for Color: Melanomas often have uneven color or multiple shades.
- D is for Diameter: If you’ve got a mole or spot larger than a pea, it needs to be checked.
- E is for Evolving: If the spot or mole has changed or grown within recent weeks or months, it could be a sign of melanoma.
If you have multiple warning signs, you need to have that mole or spot evaluated by a medical professional as soon as possible.
What To Do
If you have risk factors for skin cancer, it’s important to monitor your skin or to have a medical professional check you regularly. Risk factors include:
- Physical characteristics: Blue or green eyes; blond or red hair; or skin that is fair or burns, freckles, turns red or is painful in the sun; Also, having large numbers of or certain types of moles can indicate higher risk.
- Gender: Men are much more likely than women to be diagnosed with and die from melanoma, so they should be extra careful about checking and protecting their skin.
- History: Personal or family history of skin cancer, or a history of sunburns are risk factors.
- Exposure risk: Long periods of time spent in the sun, or a history of indoor tanning, increase skin cancer risk. Each sunburn you get in your lifetime dramatically increases your skin cancer risk, so be very careful to avoid overexposure. Even on cloudy days ultraviolet rays can be dangerous and can reflect off water, cement, sand, snow and other surfaces.
All individuals, especially those with risk factors, should protect against sun overexposure. That means using clothing that covers arms and legs; headwear that covers the face, ears and neck; UV-filtering sunglasses; and sunblock. Be sure that sunglasses and sunblock protect against both UV-A and UV-B rays and use sunblock rated at least SPF 15 or above, reapplied regularly by the instructions on the bottle. Protective eyewear is important because melanoma can also form in the eyes. Regular visits to an ophthalmologist will allow earlier detection of potential ocular melanomas.
It’s also important to remember that although fair skin increases the risk, people with darker skin are still at risk of melanoma. An example of this is famed musician Bob Marley, who died from melanoma that started under a toenail and spread to his lungs and brain.
Individuals with suspected melanomas or other skin cancers should get checked without delay. Early detection and treatment save lives. For melanoma, between 92 and 97 percent will live past five years if diagnosed in Stage I. For Stage IV, the survival rates are between 15 to 20 percent.
We also have a wide range of options to treat skin cancer. They range from simple dermatology surgery to advanced radiation oncology therapies. In my practice at the Owensboro Health Mitchell Memorial Cancer Center, I often work with and support many different providers, including primary care providers, surgeons, medical oncologists, dermatologists and more. We work together because we know as a team, we can find the best possible treatment options with improved outcomes. One example of a location that warrants discussion of radiation as a treatment option is on the face. Certain regions located in what is known as the H-zone have superior cosmetic outcomes when compared to surgery.
If you’d like to know more about how to protect against skin cancer, talk to your primary care provider or visit the CDC website. Your future can be bright if you’re careful not to get burned.
Dr. Ryan Abel is a board-certified radiation oncologist at Owensboro Health Mitchell Memorial Cancer Center.