Safe in the Sun By Loubna Scally MD, Radiation Oncologist at the Eastern New Mexico Medical Center Cancer Treatment Center
Before heading outdoors to enjoy the long summer days, make sure you’re armed with all the essentials for spending time in the sun, safely: A pair of sunglasses, a hat, and, most importantly, a good sunscreen.
One in five Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime.
In addition to premature aging, excessive sun exposure puts our health at risk. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, with more than one million cases diagnosed each year. And melanoma cases – the most serious and fastest-growing type of skin cancer – have doubled in the past 20 years.
Around 90 percent of skin cancers occur on the head, neck, ears, lips or hands – those areas that are in the sun most often. Other factors that play a role in the risk of skin cancer include our age, complexion (light-skinned people have the greatest risk), any prior family history of skin cancer, and geographic location of the country (the sunny Southern states are a hot spot for increased risk of skin cancer).
A sunburn can happen anywhere, not just at the park or the pool. You are exposed to sun while driving, through a glass window in your home, or reflected off another surface such as concrete, sand or snow. The good news: It’s never too late to begin protecting your skin. Recent studies by the Skin Cancer Foundation state that the average individual has received only 23 percent of your lifetime sun exposure by age 18 – not 80 percent as formerly thought – so there’s always a health benefit to be gained by beginning new habits, at any time in life.
Protect your skin
To protect your skin, start with a good sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. The number refers to the product’s ability to protect the skin, i.e., the amount of time it takes to burn unprotected skin versus sunscreen-protected skin. For example, a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 allows you to spend 15 times longer in the sun without burning. Be sure to choose a sunscreen with both UVA and UVB protection, also called a ‘broad spectrum’ sunscreen. The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays –ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B rays (UVB) – affect the skin differently. UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply, causing DNA and collagen damage, and play a significant role in skin aging and in the development of skin cancers. UVB rays, on the other hand, are shorter, more intense rays that cause skin color changes (such as a burn or tan), and can also quicken skin aging. UVB also plays a key role in the development of skin cancer.
Protect your skin all day, but especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., the prime time for sunburns. Remember that it’s still possible to get a sunburn on cloudy days, too. Apply plenty of sunscreen (about an ounce, which is the equivalent of a shot glass of lotion), 20 to 30 minutes before going outdoors, and reapply frequently – about every two hours – particularly after exercise or water activities.
Size, shape and color
Keep an eye on freckles, moles and other spots on your skin, and show any changes to your doctor or dermatologist. Warning signs to look for include a mole, birthmark or brown spot that over time changes color or texture, increases in size or thickness, has irregular outlines, or is bigger than 6 millimeters or a quarter-inch (the size of a pencil eraser). Also, any spot or sore that itches, hurts, crusts, scabs or bleeds, or an open sore that does not heal, should be brought to the attention of your doctor.
Concerned about a suspicious spot on your skin? Visit the American Academy of Dermatology and National Cancer Institute web sites to compare the various types of melanomas and their visual characteristics – then contact your doctor for a skin cancer screening. You can view examples of malignant melanomas at http://www.aad.org/public/exams/abcde.html or
If found and treated early, melanoma has a high cure rate, about 99 percent, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Learn more about sun safety and your skin by visiting www.ENMMC.com, click on the Health Resources link and see the Interactive Quiz section to take a test on Melanomas or Summer Skin Exposure. Or call our Cancer Treatment Center at 624-8738. The Cancer Treatment Center is part of Eastern New Mexico Medical Center and located at 405 W Country Club Road in Roswell, NM