Preventing Skin Cancer: Know the Facts, Myths of Sunburn

By Kevin Byrne, Staff Writer
May 12, 2014; 1:00 AM
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Devon Garrison plays in the pool at the clubhouse of his sub-division in Montgomery, Ala., Tuesday, June 14, 2011. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

More than one American dies of melanoma every hour in the United States and in 2014, deaths caused by the disease could approach 10,000, according to experts.

May is skin cancer detection and prevention month, sponsored by the American Academy of Dermatology, in order to spread awareness. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., with more than 3.5 million skin cancers diagnosed in over two million people annually, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

There are three primary types of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. While melanoma is not the most common form of skin cancer, it causes most of the deaths because it's more likely to spread to other parts of the body.

In 1930, 1 in 1,500 Americans was diagnosed with melanoma. In 2012, the number was 1 in 52. It is the fastest growing cancer in men and second fastest growing in women behind lung cancer.

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Too much exposure to the sun's ultraviolet radiation is a primary risk factor for melanoma. While UV rays are something that should be guarded against year round, the summer season is a time to take extra precautions.

Dr. Hooman Khorasani is the chief of dermatologic and cosmetic surgery at Mt. Sinai Health System in New York City.

Khorasani said if melanoma is detected early, then it is highly curable and the five-year survival rate ranges from 97 to 99 percent.

"About 60 percent of melanomas come from preexisting moles," Khorasani said.

How to Detect Skin Cancer

One of the most common methods that doctor recommend as a self-check for melanoma is the ABCDE test.

Moles that have one half different from another half, or are asymmetrical (A), have an irregular or poorly defined border (B), vary in color from one area to another (C), have a diameter greater than a pencil eraser (D) or they evolve in size, shape, color or any other trait (E) should be looked at immediately by a doctor.

How to Protect Yourself From Skin Cancer

One of the biggest misconceptions Khorasani sees from his patients is those who use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 100 believe they only need to apply it once.

"Really you don't need anything more than 30 to 40 SPF," Khorasani said.

It's more important to apply sunscreen frequently, Khorasani said, and the most important parts of the body to give attention to when applying sunscreen are the nose and ears.

While outdoors and participating in water activities, sunscreen should be reapplied every 20 minutes, and 40 to 50 minutes for general outdoor activity.

When it comes to protecting children from UV rays, especially at the beach, Khorasani recommended using a full body swimsuit, which covers the neck down to the toes rather than just a hat and a t-shirt.

Melanoma is the fastest growing skin cancer among younger women between the ages of 22 to 32, and along with indoor tanning, another reason is childhood sunburn, Khorasani said.

"A history of severe burns as a child has a clear link with melanoma," Khorasani said.

People who only apply sunscreen once and remain outdoors for prolonged periods of time are putting themselves at risk. It takes only about 15 minutes for the sun's UV rays to damage unprotected skin, according to the Center for Disease Control.

"Sunscreen is only one way of protecting yourself," Khorasani said.

Wearing wide-brim hats, clothing, which covers arms and legs, as well as wrap around sunglasses will offer the best resistance against the sun. In addition, seeking shade between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun is strongest, and avoiding indoor tanning are ways people can be proactive, according to the CDC.


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