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Don't get Burned: Skin Cancer and Tanning

Spring may be the season for showers, but sprinkled in are a few beautiful, sunny days just beckoning sun-lovers to bask in their warm glory and start working on a tan.

One in five Americans will develop skin cancer, making it the most common of all cancers, according to the American Cancer Society.

Skin cancer appears in several forms. When cancer forms in cells that create pigment (melanin), it is called melanoma. If the cancer forms in cells that do not make pigment, it may begin in either basal cells (small, round cells in the base of the outer layer of skin) or squamous cells (flat cells that form the surface of the skin).

Both types of skin cancer usually occur in skin that has been exposed to sunlight, such as the face, neck, backs of hands and arms. The National Cancer Institute estimates there will be more than one million new cases of non-melanoma cancer in the United States in 2007.

             Risk factors for all skin cancers include:

  • Unprotected or excessive exposure to the sun
  • Fair complexion
  • Severe childhood sunburns
  • Family history
  • Multiple or atypical moles
  • Occupational exposures to coal tar, pitch, creosote, arsenic compounds or radium

Dermatologist John Wollner, MD, recommends checking your body from head to toe once a month. As with any cancer, early detection is the key.  Early warning symptoms include:

  • Skin changes, especially in color or size of moles or other darkly pigmentedgrowths (existing or new)
  • Changes in appearance of bumps, like scaliness, oozing or bleeding
  • Spread of pigmentation beyond the border of a mole or mark
  • A change in sensation - itchiness, tenderness or pain.

 "Think of it like a monthly breast exam. How long does that take? In fact, if you're a woman, it is ideal to regularly do both at the same time. Also, be sure to have a significant other or family member -- or use a mirror -- to check your back," says Dr. Wollner.

In the United States the percentage of people who develop melanoma has more than doubled in the past 30 years. Tanning beds, especially popular with high school youths around prom time, also contribute to the rise in skin cancer.

"Tanning beds use longer wavelengths, which penetrate deeper into the skin," explains Dr. Wollner. "You may not get as burned as you do in natural sunlight (which has shorter ultraviolet wavelengths), but there is more long term skin damage. The main thing about ultraviolet damage to your skin, whether natural or not, is that 80% of skin damage occurs before ages 18 to 20."

Dr. Wollner recommends self-tanners as a safe alternative for adding a little color, but cautions that they do not provide any sun protection and sunscreens must be used when out in the sun.

Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers are highly treatable when detected early. Melanoma also is highly treatable if it is detected early and treated appropriately.  But, when melanoma has spread to other parts of the body, statistics for survival begin to decline dramatically. 

The chance of developing melanoma increases with age, but it can affect people of all ages and occurs on any skin surface. In men, melanoma is often found on the trunk (the area between the shoulders and the hips) or the head and neck. Often, women develop it on the lower part of their legs.

Melanoma is rare in black people and others with dark skin, but if it does develop, the cancer generally occurs on the underside of hands and feet or under the fingernails or toenails.

To learn more about skin cancer or to sign up for a free skin cancer screening in May, call the Mercy  Regional Cancer Center at 398-6452.