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Skin Cancer and its Prevention

Updated on February 27, 2013

A friend of mine died from melanoma skin cancer over twenty years ago after the disease spread through his lymph nodes and internal organs. My brother and another friend were recently diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer. Fortunately, both individuals were successfully treated for this usually non lethal form of the disease. The cause of their skin cancer was overexposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV) from the sun. These individuals took few precautions to protect themselves from the sun including wearing an effective sunscreen. Much to my dismay, one still doesn’t bother with it.


Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. It accounts for nearly half of all cancers in the country. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime. More than two million people are diagnosed annually. There are more new skin cancer cases than any other form of cancer resulting in approximately twelve thousand fatalities. Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) are the most common types of skin cancer, but they’re rarely fatal if treated properly. Melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer, will account for 75,000 cases of skin cancer resulting in close to nine thousand deaths annually.


About 90 percent of non-melanoma skin cancers and 70-90 percent of Melanoma skin cancers are associated with exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. In fact, more than 90 percent of skin damage normally attributed to aging is caused by exposure to the sun. According to skincancer.org, 80 percent of a person’s lifetime sun exposure is not acquired by age 18. In reality, only about 23 percent of lifetime exposure occurs by this age. They further point out that average accumulated exposure from 1-18 years of age is about 23%, 19-40 is around 47%, 41-59 is 74% and 60-78 is 100%.


UV radiation lies above visible light in the electromagnetic spectrum and is invisible to the human eye. UV rays can penetrate and damage skin cells. There are three types of ultraviolet radiation including ultraviolet A (UVA), ultraviolet B (UVB), and ultraviolet C (UVC). UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin than UVB and cause photo damage and aging of the skin. UVA has traditionally not been linked to sunburn and skin cancer, but scientists now believe UVA contributes to skin cancer by indirect DNA damage. UVB radiation is the primary culprit in sunburn and skin cancer and although the ozone layer screens out much of the UVB rays enough reaches the ground to cause serious damage to unprotected individuals. UVC is the most dangerous, but it’s absorbed by the atmosphere and never reaches the ground. UV rays from sunlight are the greatest during the late spring and early summer in the Northern Hemisphere.


Basal and squamous cell skin cancers generally start in the basal and squamous skin cells of the afflicted individual. They usually develop on areas of the body exposed to sun such as the face, ears, neck, arms etc. These cells are found at the base of the outer layer of the skin. These are highly curable forms of skin cancer with few fatalities, but some deaths do occur usually attributable to late diagnoses.


Melanoma is the most lethal form of skin cancer and it begins in the melanocytes. These cells produce melanin which is responsible for skin pigmentation. Melanin helps to protect the skin against the damaging effects of solar radiation. One in fifty people will be diagnosed with melanoma. These risks can soar with just a couple of nasty sunburns. Melanoma accounts for almost 9,000 of the nearly 12,000 skin cancer deaths each year.

Tanning is another high risk activity for skin cancer. Frequent tanners may receive over ten times the annual UVA dose compared to what they would normally receive from the sun. Their risks for skin cancer skyrocket with regular tanning sessions. The International Agency for Research on Cancer actually categorizes tanning devices in its Group 1 list of cancer causing substances.


People are at risk for skin cancer for a number of reasons including: Unprotected or excessive exposure to the sun or tanning booths, fair complexions, red hair, exposure to certain compounds and chemicals, genetic predisposition, moles and too many sunburns. If you have any of these risk factors, carefully monitor the condition of your skin. Look for any changes in the size or color of moles, spots and growths. Pay particular attention to any scaling or bleeding. Also beware of any itching or pain.


The easiest and most effective way to lower your risk of skin cancer is to avoid or reduce your exposure to the sun. If you do go out, always wear a sunscreen of SPF (Sun Protection Factor) 15 or better. Make sure you use a lot and cover everything including your face, nose, ears, lips, neck, arms, legs and balding areas of the scalp. Apply sunscreen twenty minutes before you go out and reapply every couple of hours. I use sunscreen everyday from March through October even though I work indoors. Remember that photo damage is cumulative. It builds up over time. Even brief exposure to the sun while travelling to and from work adds up.

Wear a hat and sunglasses rated to block all UV. This has the added benefit of mitigating potential cataract problems later in life. Try to avoid the sun during peak hours from 10am to 4pm. Be sure to wear a shirt and hat while out in the sun even if you’re on the beach. I always have a shirt on at the beach until after 6pm or so. And even with a shirt on, I still have sunscreen on underneath since a typical t-shirt only has an SPF of about 4. Do all of this even on a cloudy day since most UV rays pass through clouds.


Use sunscreens with an SPF of at least 15. SPF measures of how well the sunscreen deflects UVB rays. If you usually get burned in twenty minutes, a sunscreen with an SPF of 20 would give you four hundred minutes before you started to burn.


A few simple precautions can prevent a lifetime of trouble not to mention aged, wrinkled skin that makes you look old beyond your years.


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