Just in time for all of the fun outdoor summer activities to start, we are reminded that May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. While summer sunshine brightens all of our days, it is important to remember the health risks that come with it and how to protect ourselves.
Our skin is the largest organ in our body and is made of layers. These layers include the epidermis, which is the outermost part of skin. This layer serves as part of our immune system and produces pigmentation. The next layer is the dermis. This part contains nerve endings, sweat glands, oil glands and hair follicles. When exposing ourselves to too many UV rays we put ourselves at a higher risk for cancer.
Types of Skin Cancer
There are many types of skin cancer but the most common three are: Basal Cell Carcinoma, Squamous Cell Carcinoma and Melanoma. Basal cell and Squamous cell carcinoma are both curable but lead to expensive medical bills and can leave you disfigured. Melanoma causes the most death related to skin cancer and can spread to other organs quickly.
Exposure and Risk Factors Can Add Up To Damage Skin
Overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays cause damage to our skin. UV rays can come from sunlight, tanning beds or tanning lights. Short term damage leads to sunburn, but over time that damage adds up and causes changes to the skin. These changes include skin texture, premature skin aging and cancer. Several factors can put you at a higher risk for developing skin cancer already. These factors are light skin, if you burn or freckle easily, blue or green eyes, blonde or red hair, certain types or a lot of moles, a personal or family history of cancer and older age.
Signs and Symptoms to Watch For
Symptoms of skin cancer include changes in skin, such as new growth, sores not healing or a change in a mole. When looking at moles we can remember the ABCDEs.
1. Is it an asymmetrical shape? Does it have two different parts that don’t match?
2. Is the border irregular or jagged?
3. Is the color uneven?
4. How big is the diameter? Is it larger than a pea?
5. Is it evolving? Has it changed in the last couple weeks or months?
If you have any of these symptoms you should contact you doctor as soon as possible.
The benefits of being outdoors
Being outdoors does have known health benefits. It is known to improve overall health and wellness by promoting activity, improving mental health and decreasing stress. UV rays can promote Vitamin D production in your skin. The amount produced depends on skin tone, location, weather, time of year, and the time of day. You skin can only produce so much Vitamin D at a time though. Once it has produced that much, continuing exposure only increases your chances of skin cancer. It’s important to remember that you can obtain plenty of Vitamin D through food and/or supplements.
Protect yourself from harmful UV rays
There are ways to enjoy being outside and its benefits while protecting yourself. Stay in the shade when you can, and cover your arms and legs when you can’t. Also, wear a hat with a large brim to protect your face, ears and neck. Wear sunglasses that protect from UVA and UVB rays. Always apply and reapply, when the directions say to, a broad-spectrum sunscreen with and SPF of at least 15 or higher. You should follow these rules all year long and even on cloudy days. It’s important to remember that UV rays can reach you on cloudy days and in the winter. They can also bounce off of surfaces like water, sand, cement, and snow. UV rays are the strongest between 10am and 4pm. Other ways to limit your UV exposure is to avoid tanning beds and lamps.
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States
A tan is not a sign of health and a “base tan” does not protect you from burning more. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the US. 4.3 million adults are treated for squamous and basal cell carcinoma and the cost is more than $4.8 billion. In 2018 there was a total of 83,996 new melanomas reported in the US. 8,199 of those died as a result of the cancer. One out of every 4 deaths in the US are attributed to cancer and is the second leading cause for deaths.
The CDC is promoting skin health by creating guidelines for schools to practice, educate and promote UV exposure responsibility. To raise awareness the CDC also asks you to join them by posting a selfie on social media of you practicing skin cancer protection. So, apply your sunscreen, hats and hang out in the shade! Take a selfie and post it to social media with the hashtag of #sunsafeselfie
Ashley Ruth, RN, is the Communicable Disease Nurse at Fayette County Public Health. For more information about skin cancer, including videos, podcasts, graphics and prints visit https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/resources/index.htm