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Melanoma prevention via sun protection and skin inspection

woman in a sundress and hat in a sunny field
July 3, 2018
Lily Moran

Nothing says summer like endless hours of fun in the sun. But as you know, that bright orb in the sky has a dark side. Exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays over time is the single greatest cause of skin cancer, including deadly melanoma.

There are several types of skin cancer, and most are easily treatable and curable. Melanoma, however, can be a different story. If not caught early, it can spread to other parts of the body, making it increasingly hard to treat. It’s not the most common form of skin cancer, but it is the deadliest—killing an estimated 10,000 people per year.

Melanoma originates in the pigment-producing cells called melanocytes. Melanomas usually resemble moles, and often (though not always), moles can turn into melanomas.

The majority of melanomas are brown or black, but it’s very important to note that they can be any color—red, pink, white, or even the same as the surrounding skin. I remember years ago a friend went for an annual exam and her doctor noticed a tiny red and pink area on her lower leg. She thought she cut it shaving, but the doctor was suspicious. She did a biopsy and it in fact was melanoma—fortunately caught early.

The ABCDE Rule

My friend’s story illustrates the importance of annual skin checks with a dermatologist or general practitioner who has experience with skin exams. What looks normal to you may look abnormal to a trained eye that’s used to pinpointing suspicious growths.

At the same time, you are your own best advocate. That is why you need to be fully aware of all the markings on your skin. Take a monthly inventory of your skin. Check every inch of it—between your toes, behind your ears, between your legs (yes, even your genital region can develop skin cancers), and ask a loved one to take a look at your scalp.

Do you see anything new? Do any existing moles look different compared to how they looked the month prior? A good rule of thumb is to follow the “ABCDE” rule:

  • Asymmetry—A benign mole is symmetrical, meaning if you drew a line down the middle, both sides would look the same. If both sides look different, it may be a melanoma.
  • Border—A benign mole has smooth, even borders. A melanoma usually has uneven borders.
  • Color—Most benign moles are one solid color—usually brown. If a mole has various colors, get it checked out. (Remember, not all melanomas are dark…)
  • Diameter—Melanomas are usually larger in size, though in the earliest stages they may be small. However, large marks should always be inspected by a doctor. Use the eraser on your pencil to measure your mole. If it’s larger than the pencil eraser (about ¼ inch), it could be cancer.
  • Evolving—A benign mole looks the same over time. If it starts changing or evolving in any way (color, shape, size, elevation, itching, bleeding, etc.), see a doctor.

 

Who Is Most at Risk?

Fair and light-skinned people are at most risk of developing melanoma, while those with darker skin tones have a little more natural protection due to more pigmentation. However, this does not mean people with dark skin are immune.

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Musician Bob Marley is a perfect example of this. He died of melanoma at the tragically young age of 36 because he assumed a dark spot under his toenail was a soccer injury. But it was actually acral lentiginous melanoma—a form of the disease that develops on hairless skin such as under the nails or on the soles of the feet or palms.

While most melanomas are caused by UV radiation from the sun, this rare form is genetic in nature and is the most common type to affect people of color. So everyone needs to be vigilant.

Skin Cancer Prevention

These skin cancer prevention tips are common sense, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t follow them regularly—or at all! If nothing else, let me appeal to your vanity…

The sun’s rays also happen to be a major cause of premature skin aging and wrinkling. So if you don’t do these things to protect against skin cancer, do them to keep your skin looking younger longer!

  • Avoid tanning beds at all costs. (I honestly don’t know why and how they even still exist in this day and age.)
  • If at all possible, stay out of the sun between the hours of 10:00 am and 2:00 pm, when the sun’s rays are the strongest.
  • When in the sun, wear UV-filtering clothing (available online and at many retailers), a wide-brimmed hat, and UV-blocking sunglasses. If you’re going to be outside for longer than 20 minutes, then apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen to the areas of your skin that are exposed. (An alternative to UV-filtering clothing is tightly woven fabric, such as linen or spandex. If you are wearing loosely woven cotton, wash and dry it several times first, as this will cause the fibers tighten up.)

I should say that I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with sunscreen. I certainly see its value. However, I believe it is overused.

The sun is an integral factor in the body’s natural production of vitamin D—and I believe the epidemic of vitamin D deficiencies we’re seeing is due to a complete lack of sun exposure.

So I recommend getting a few minutes of sun exposure on your bare, unprotected skin every day. And by “a few,” I mean 3-4 minutes to start. Gradually increase that amount of time, but don’t go beyond 15 minutes if you have light skin, and 20 minutes if you have dark skin. At that point, you should apply sunscreen or put on your UV-filtering clothing, and try to stay protected and in the shade as much as possible. This minimal amount of sun exposure should provide your body with what it needs to synthesize some vitamin D naturally, without putting you at great risk of sunburn or sun damage.

With that said, if you burn extremely easily or have a history of melanoma or any other skin cancer, stay covered up all the time and get your vitamin D through supplementation instead.

In Conclusion

If there’s one thing you can do right now to make sure your skin is in the healthiest shape possible, it’s to get a skin exam by a medical professional. Getting the all-clear gives you peace of mind…and if something is found, early diagnosis is imperative to successful treatment and cure. Take good care of the skin you’re in, and it will serve you well over a lifetime!

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