I am dubbing May “self-care month” as it is a month for many wellness initiatives such as Women’s Health, Exercise and Physical Fitness and Skin Care and Melanoma Awareness Month.
This week let’s tackle melanoma (or skin cancer) mainly because we are getting outdoors more and as the weather improves and temperatures rise more skin is exposed. And we want to protect our largest organ, don't we?
I don’t know about you but way back when I was a teen, we were all putting baby oil on our skin and baking ourselves out in the sun for hours on end, working on our summer tan. I think the next decade saw us doing this any time of the year, ensconced in tanning beds. Yikes!
Now I make sure I have sunscreen, a hat and a long sleeve coverup for the beach! How times have changed. I keep forgetting the bottoms of my feet though and invariably I have some discomfort on my soles, after a day at the shore. How about you? Are you doing all you can to protect your precious skin?
Types of skin cancer:
The first thing to know is there are (3) types. The most common are basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, which are not melanomas and therefore easier to recognize and treat. Both are usually not life threatening. Basal cell is slow growing while squamous is faster and spreads more easily.
Melanoma is the more aggressive and potentially life threatening form of skin cancer and often develops from a birth mark or mole, but not always. Often it presents on the head, neck or shoulders on men, arms and legs for women. Sometimes you find melanoma on the soles of your feet, palm of your hand or even your eye. The risk includes spread to the bones and brain, making it very hard to treat and incurable.
What causes skin cancer?
Remember what I said earlier about excessive sunning and tanning beds? Well, both of these activities promote this type of cancer, as the ultraviolet light (UV) from the sun changes the cells’ DNA. Basal cell and squamous cell are more likely in light-skinned people who spend a great deal of time in the sun. Melanoma is activated from blistering sunburns and the number of those types of sunburns increases your likelihood of developing a melanoma.
Other factors can be environmental, such as exposure to chemicals found in insecticides, or coal tar and radium. Did you see Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge?
Also red heads, blue-eyed blondes and someone with albinism is more susceptible to skin cancers. If you have many freckles or moles you are at more risk of melanoma. If you are dark-skinned, your chances decrease but you can still get skin cancer.
Some other risk factors beyond pigmentation, are where you live and what you do for a living. If you live in Arizona you are getting more skin exposure than someone from Maine. If you work outdoors chances are also increased. Men are three times more likely than women to get skin cancer and most people are diagnosed between 45-55 years of age, but that doesn’t preclude young people from getting it. If someone in your immediate family gets it, your chances go up too.
What can I do to protect myself?
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the US and worldwide with one in five Americans diagnosed by the age of 70. When detected early, melanoma has a 99% five year survival rate.
Skin cancer can be preventable by taking steps to cover up when outdoors, using a broad spectrum SPF30 sunscreen, and limiting our time in the direct sun between 10am – 2pm. It can also be treatable by paying attention to our largest organ, and checking for any changes in size, shape or feel of a mole on our skin.
As part of your wellness checklist, if you notice any changes to moles or freckles on your body, make an appointment with a dermatologist right away. Often times this quick action is all that is needed to treat the cancer effectively. Your doctor is looking for any changes in the size of a mole, checking to see if the border is irregular and if there is asymmetry, bleeding or itching. If any of these are present, then a biopsy is in order and treatment will be determined from the results.
Some experts disagree about when you should get checked for skin cancer, however if you are a high risk individual, you probably should see a dermatologist at least once for a baseline. That is if you are fair-skinned, blonde or red-headed, blue eyed, with freckles and burn easily. Also if anyone in your family has had melanoma. And you’ve had blistering sunburns, used tanning beds, 50 moles or more, or have had an organ transplant.
I know this is a somewhat serious post this week but I really do want you to stay safe in the sun!