Too much sun can lead to skin cancer

A deep, rich summertime suntan is not a healthy glow—it is the first step toward developing skin cancer.

A recent free skin cancer screening event held at the OSF Saint Anthony Center for Cancer Care revealed how widespread a problem skin cancer is in the Rock River Valley. Three dermatologists checked moles or lesions on 73 people during the event and identified nine people as having skin cancer. A total of 13 people were referred for a biopsy of a suspicious mole or lesion, and 29 were referred for follow-up appointments with their physicians.

These numbers are high but not, unfortunately, surprising. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. Each year, more than 1.3 million people receive a skin cancer diagnosis. The NIH estimates that 40 to 50 percent of Americans who live to age 65 will have skin cancer at least once during their lifetime.

Lifetime exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays is the primary cause of skin cancer. Use of sunlamps and tanning booths, which emit artificial UV rays, also increase the risk of skin cancer. Those at higher risk include those who work outdoors, have fair skin, freckles, any atypical moles or a family history of skin cancer.

Fortunately, most skin cancers are treatable. Overall, the cure rate is about 90 percent. However, the incidence of melanoma, an invasive, aggressive and sometimes lethal form of skin cancer, is rising faster than any other type of cancer. More than 50,000 new cases are expected to be diagnosed this year.

Almost all skin cancers can be successfully treated when detected early. To help catch cancer before it becomes life threatening, the American Cancer Society recommends that people age 20 to 40 have a physician perform a skin check-up every three years and people age 40 and older have one done yearly. It also recommends monthly self-examinations.

Self-examinations should be performed after a shower or bath. In a well-lit room, use a full-length and hand-held mirror to check yourself from head to toe for moles or lesions that have uneven or jagged edges, are uneven in color or are larger than the eraser of a pencil. Look for new growths or a change in the size, shape, texture or color of previously existing growths. And check for areas of scaliness, itching, bleeding, tenderness or pain. If you see something that fits into any of those categories, schedule an appointment with your physician.

Prevention is the best medicine when it comes to skin cancer. Simple methods to cut UV exposure during the summer include reducing time spent outside between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., wearing clothing such as sun hats and long sleeves, and frequently applying sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) 15 or higher.

By taking preventive measures, your skin will stay softer, smoother and give you a truly healthy glow that lasts longer than any tan.

Judy Williamson is an oncology clinical nurse specialist at OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center in Rockford.

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