Now that the weather’s getting warmer and we’re all pulling out sleeveless tops and colorful shorts, it’s time to think about the health of our skin. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) set up a great reminder for us: May is the official Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month®. All around the country, organizations are offering free screenings. There’s no better time to make sure your skin is healthy!
“I have to admit,” says investigative reporter Heather VanNest, “I almost missed that skin cancer appointment years ago. I thought I had too many other important things to do. It ended up becoming the most important thing I’ve ever done.” Diagnosed with melanoma when she was 29 years old, Heather’s life was saved because of early screening. “If you didn’t come in for a full body skin cancer exam and biopsy,” her doctor told her, “I doubt you would’ve lived to see your 35th birthday.”
Cancer of the skin is the most common of all cancers, hitting more than one million people a year in the U.S. alone. Basal cell and squamous cell rarely spread, and are less worrisome than melanoma, the most serious form. Melanoma accounts for only about 4% of cases, but causes more than 75% of skin-cancer deaths-mostly because it can get into the blood stream, where cancer cells can spread to the liver and lungs. Fortunately, it’s highly curable if caught early.
To protect yourself, check your skin regularly. Research shows enlisting the help of a partner improves early detection. For easy, illustrated steps on how to perform a self exam, check out the skin-self-exam site at the AAD. To find a free cancer screening close to your area, go to this page and type in your city and state, or call your local health department for more information.
The precise cause of skin cancer is unknown, but risk factors include skin color (people with light skin and eye colors are more susceptible), a history of sunburns, excessive tanning, moles, a suppressed immune system, and a personal or family history of melanoma. “Warning signs can include any one of the following symptoms,” says VanNest. “Itching, bleeding, asymmetrical edges, irregular borders, color changes larger than a pencil eraser.”
If you’ve already had skin cancer at one time in your life, be very diligent in your care. “Once a patient is diagnosed with melanoma,” says Dermatologist Jason K. Rivers, MD, “he or she should be checked by a dermatologist as often as every three months to once a year, depending on the individual’s prognosis.”
To help prevent skin cancer, Dermatologist Gary S. Rogers, MD, recommends you use sunblock with an SPF of at least 30. (Try Soleo Organics and California Baby brands.) When in direct sunlight, wear a wide-brimmed hat and long sleeves. Avoid tanning beds, and limit long periods of time outdoors between intense-sunlight hours of 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Eat foods rich in antioxidants like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and flax seed; take recommended daily doses of antioxidant supplements; and see your dermatologist regularly.
“The most important factor in beating melanoma and improving survival rates,” says Rivers, “is increased public awareness, as this has been shown to save lives by identifying melanoma at an early, curable stage.”
Did you get your skin-cancer screening this month? Please share your story.
Photo courtesy of moonimage, via Flickr.com.