How to Detect and Prevent Skin Cancer

By Laura Bollinger, RDN


Did you know that May is Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention month?


Cancer is considered to be one of the most feared words in our vocabulary. No one likes to talk about it, so let's start with some good news: skin cancer can almost always be cured with early detection and treatment.


This is great news since skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Current estimates indicate one in every five Americans will be diagnosed with some type of skin cancer in their lifetime. That fact is a key reason May is Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention month.


Dermatologist checking for skin cancer


The broad term “skin cancer” encompasses several different types of cancer including the three most common skin cancers: basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma. All three types are generally caused by excess exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. Typically, we are exposed to UV light from the sun, but we can also encounter it by using tanning beds or sunlamps.


The American Academy of Dermatology states other risk factors for skin cancer include:

  • skin that burns easily
  • blond or red hair
  • a history of excessive sun exposure, including sunburns
  • tanning bed use
  • a weakened immune system
  • a history of skin cancer
  • individuals with greater than 50 moles, atypical moles, or large moles are at a higher risk for developing melanoma


Remember the good news though: prevention is possible and with early identification and treatment, skin cancer can typically be cured. Knowing how to reduce your risk is the first step in preventing skin cancer:

  • Since UV light exposure is the main modifiable risk factor, protecting yourself from these rays is important

    • Avoid tanning beds - especially if you are at high risk for skin cancer
    • Be smart about being in the sun by wearing protective clothing

      • Lightweight long-sleeved shirts provide protection from the sun while also keeping you cool in the summer heat
      • Long pants made from thin materials such as linen or technologically advanced wicking fabrics guard against UV exposure and getting too hot
    • Wear a hat that will protect your scalp as well as your face from the sun. This will also help reduce wrinkles!
  • Beyond clothing choices, other ways to protect your skin include:

    • Seeking shade whenever possible
    • Using a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher
    • Trying to stay out of the sun when it is the most intense between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. (Even on overcast, cloudy, or cold days the sun's UV rays can still reach us, so always take precautions.)


Protection from the sun


Pay attention to changes in your skin. Recognizing changes in your skin quickly and then having a healthcare professional assess the changes significantly increases the likelihood that skin cancer can be cured. Changes in your skin to take notice of include:

  • A sore that doesn't heal properly
  • A new growth
  • Changes in moles or lesions

    • If you have many moles it may be difficult to remember what they all look like from month to month. Performing regular self-checks of your skin as well as taking photographs can be very valuable should you ever need to see a dermatologist. If ever a mole changes shape, size, or color this could easily be identified in a series of photos that have been taken over the previous months or even years. The majority of melanomas are self-discovered so these self-exams are highly important, particularly if you are high risk.


Consider talking to your healthcare provider about your risk factors and determine how often you should perform these self-checks.


Take it a step further by joining the American Academy of Dermatology and becoming a skin cancer hero! These are patients and survivors or family and friends who support skin cancer patients and survivors. We can all be heroes by taking the time to check ourselves and our loved ones for suspicious skin changes.


Sun exposure isn't all bad though. Exposing our skin to the sun's rays is one way we can get the much-needed nutrient, vitamin D. It's estimated that approximately 10 to 30 minutes in the sun daily is adequate to maintain vitamin D levels. Extended time in the sun also increases skin cancer risk. Practice sun safety and always avoid allowing your skin to become sunburned.


Educate your children on sun safety as well! While we certainly want to encourage kids to play in the great outdoors, they need to protect their skin, too:

  • Dress little ones in clothing that protects their skin.
  • Apply sunscreen regularly, especially if they are swimming or playing in the water.
  • Talk to your children about sun safety and encourage them to be smart about their time spent in the sun – even when they are away from you such as at school recess.


Experiencing a severe sunburn as a child is not only painful, it will also increase their risk of skin cancer later in life.


Rather than simply fearing skin cancer, take action this month to protect yourself as well as your family and friends. Practice sun safety while having summer fun!


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