As the weather grows warmer, people's thoughts turn to outdoor activities and enjoying the sunshine. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute physicians and nurses are encouraging people when they are outside, whether they are spending a day at the beach or a few hours working in their yard, to be aware of the dangers of overexposure to the sun and to practice sun safety.
Prevention and early detection are critical to reducing the dangers of skin cancer and melanoma. "Warm weather is a great motivator for people to get outside and reap the health benefits of being more active," explained Stephen Hodi, MD, clinical director of the Melanoma Program at Dana-Farber. "At the same time, it is important that people protect themselves from the sun and make themselves aware of the signs and symptoms of skin cancer and melanoma to greatly reduce their risk of developing these preventable but dangerous diseases."
To stay sun safe, remember to think about:
• Applying a sun block with a rating of SPF 15 or higher;
• Reapplying sun block every two hours, and immediately after swimming or heavy perspiration;
• Providing additional protection by wearing a broad rimmed hat, sunglasses, long-sleeved shirts and pants; and
• Avoiding excessive exposure to the sun, especially during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Because sunscreen contains ingredients that lose potency over time, bottles that have been sitting on the shelf for more than a year may not provide adequate protection. "People need to remember to look at the expiration date on their bottle of sun block," explained Hodi. "In general, we recommend that you change your bottle of sun block yearly."
According to the American Cancer Society, more than an estimated one million Americans will be diagnosed with basal cell or squamous cell cancers this year, and more than 60,000 will be diagnosed with the most serious form of skin cancer—melanoma. More than 8,400 deaths in the United States this year will be due to a form of skin cancer.
Melanoma can be hereditary; people with family members who have had melanoma are at a higher risk for melanoma. People who have had melanoma and moles are at greater risk of developing the disease. Excessive sun exposure and sunburns increase a person's risk of developing not only melanoma but other skin cancers as well.
Skin cancers present a range of symptoms. Melanoma symptoms include changes on the skin, including new spots or moles or existing spots or moles that change in shape, size and color. Basal cell carcinomas usually appear as flat, firm, pale areas or as small, raised, pink or red waxy areas. Squamous cell cancer may appear as lumps with rough surfaces or as flat, red patches that grow slowly.
Recognizing changes on the skin is key for early detection and treatment of skin cancers. The American Cancer Society recommends using the ABCD rule to help determine when a skin or mole change should be seen by a physician:
A for asymmetry: one half is differently shaped than the other
B for border irregularity: jagged or blurred edges
C for color: the pigmentation may not be consistent
D for diameter: moles greater than six millimeters (the size of a pencil eraser)
People who experience any of these symptoms should notify their physician immediately.
Some skin cancers can be removed by excising the affected areas; malignant melanoma may involve removing the affected area, removing lymph nodes near the area and may also include radiation therapy.