By Matti Ben-Lev
It’s May and summer is nearly upon us. I can already feel the sand beneath my feet, hear the waves crashing and smell the fresh saltwater in the air. If you’re anything like myself, you spend all year waiting for summer. But unfortunately, with the summer sun comes some potential hazards.
May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month and what better time to discuss skin cancer than heading into what is expected to be our hottest summer yet. We hear a lot about different types of cancer, but did you know that skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States? According to the CDC, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. While skin cancer is not often thought to be as fatal as other cancers, it can still be quite harmful and certain types can be fatal when not addressed quickly enough.
Part of what makes skin cancer so alarming is that anyone can get it, although some people are more predisposed than others. People that have light skin, freckle easily, have blonde or red hair, and have a large number of moles are at a greater risk for developing skin cancer. Those who have a family or personal history with skin cancer are also at a greater risk. So if that describes you, it might be wise to take some precautions this summer.
The reason that just about anyone can develop skin cancer is because it is caused by the ultraviolet (UV) rays emitted by the sun. Other common UV ray sources include tanning beds and sun lamps. Overexposure to UV rays causes damage to our skin cells (which produces sunburns). Repeated damage to skin cells can lead to premature skin aging and cancer.
That all being said, there is no need to panic— there are some easy ways to practice sun safety and have fun this summer. Using broad spectrum sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher is one of the most effective ways to prevent damage to skin cells, as it blocks UVA and UVB rays, which are both emitted by the sun and can both be harmful. So make sure that the sunscreen you use this summer has the words “broad spectrum” on the label. Another easy way to prevent skin cell damage is to check the UV index if you plan to be outside for an extended period of time that day. You can easily find access to the UV index each day on the EPA website (epa.gov). If the UV index is 3 or higher, make sure to cover up, stay in the shade and use lots of sunscreen. Additionally, you may want to consider limiting your tanning, especially using indoor tanning beds. Remember that what is commonly called a “base tan” is usually a sign of skin damage!
It is also wise to regularly check yourself for any new moles, bumps or skin irritation that seems irregular. If you see any of those signs on yourself, or if you are in doubt, you should make sure to address it with your doctor. While the most common type of skin cancer, non-melanoma, can usually be cured, it can be very expensive to address and can leave you with some ugly scars. If treatment of non-melanoma skin cancers is delayed, it can spread and become much more dangerous. Some signs of non-melanoma include bumps, sores, raised growths, warts and tough skin. Melanoma, on the other hand, can advance very fast and can even spread to other organs. Most of the skin cancer deaths that occur result from melanoma. The most common sign of melanoma is an irregularly shaped or colored mole. If in doubt about a suspicious mole, the smart move is to get yourself checked.
If this is a topic of importance to you, there are some easy ways to get involved. You can access the Skin Cancer foundation by going to skincancer.org. On their website you can make donations and find opportunities to volunteer. The Skin Cancer Foundation is also hosting the #SkinCheckChallenge this month, which implores you to check your skin from head to toe, create a social media post with the hashtag “#SkinCheckChallenge,” and tag 2 friends. Their mission is to raise awareness about skin cancer and motivate others to perform these checks themselves.
To wrap up: when you’re outside enjoying the sun this summer, make sure to take the necessary precautions. Check the UV index if you plan to spend the day outside and practice sun safety accordingly. Ensure that you use a broad spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher. Report any unusual skin marks to your doctor. Let’s have our best summer yet! For more information on skin cancer, you can visit cdc.gov.