Try these tried-and-true tips to protect your skin from cancer
[6 MIN READ]
In this article:
- A cancer expert at Providence shares his tips for lowering your risk for skin cancer all year long — and especially this summer.
- Avoid using tanning beds to reduce your risk for all types of skin cancer, including melanoma.
- Finding and using the right sunscreen each day is a major way to prevent skin cancer.
You have questions about preventing skin cancer — and we’ve got answers. Trevan Fischer, M.D., surgical oncologist at the Center for Cancer Prevention and Treatment, Providence St. Joseph Hospital, shares his tips on how to lower your odds of getting skin cancer — just in time for the summer.
Is there anything new to know about skin cancer prevention?
For decades, we have known how to protect yourself from the sun using broad-spectrum sunscreen to protect against UV rays and avoiding direct sun. These skin cancer prevention techniques work for melanoma [the most severe kind of skin cancer] as well as basal cell and squamous cell cancers.
I think the newest research will show us that tanning beds are the biggest risk for melanoma. We are seeing more and more women with melanoma in their 40s who have a history of using tanning beds.
It is especially bad for teenagers to use tanning beds. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, tanning bed use before age 20 can increase your chance of developing melanoma by 47%. Each time you use a tanning bed, the risk increases. My strongest prevention advice is to avoid tanning beds.
What should teenagers and young adults know about sunscreen?
The majority of sun exposure in your life happens before you are 25 years old. It is important to have good sun protection habits from the start. I like to tell people to make it part of their daily care habit: brush your teeth, put on deodorant and use sunscreen, even on cloudy days.
Many make-ups and foundations contain SPF, making it easy to apply each day. There are also new sunscreens that are very light on your skin so you don’t feel oily throughout the day and so they don’t irritate acne. Finding the right sunscreen for you can make it easier to apply each day.
What are some other protections?
In addition to avoid tanning beds, you should also:
- Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen — at least SPF 30 — every two hours when you are in the sun. Reapply more often if you are sweating. If you are just going in and out of the car, you can reapply every four hours; if you are in direct sun, every two hours; and in direct sun and perspiring, every half hour. It is important to avoid sunburn at all costs.
- Wear sun protection clothing. Ultraviolet protective clothing and rash guards have gotten more popular, both for kids and adults. They offer all-day protection without having to reapply sunscreen. If you are gardening or are in the sun for a long time, wear a wide-brimmed hat.
- Try to avoid sun exposure between 10 am and 4 pm. This is the time when the sun’s rays are the strongest and can cause the most damage.
- Get yearly skin checks from your dermatologist or primary care physician.
When should a person start doing skin checks?
I encourage all adults to get a skin check once a year. Unlike screenings such as mammograms and colonoscopies, there is no universal guideline about when to start.
When it comes to skin cancer, your skin tone and skin color matters. If you are fair-skinned with red or blond hair, you are at higher risk for sun damage and might want to see a dermatologist in your late teens or early twenties. Your family history also matters. If your family has a history of melanoma, basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma, you should see a dermatologist each year.
Doctors have different approaches to skin checks. Some use dermoscopy (a special type of photography), serial photography (yearly photos of your skin damage) and newer techniques like confocal microscopy, while others rely on sight, touch and a clinical history.
What can people look out for themselves?
You can also keep an eye on your skin yourself between skin checks. Use these ABCs to evaluate moles:
- A = asymmetry: Does one side of a mole match the other side?
- B = border: Is it ragged or smooth?
- C = color: Is it many different colors?
- D = diameter: Anything above 6 millimeters (the size of a pencil eraser) can be — but isn’t necessarily — worrisome.
- E = evolution and everything else: Are there any changes in color, size or look of the mole?
If you are concerned about a specific mole, you should make an appointment with your doctor.
What are the treatments for skin cancer?
Early detection really makes a significant difference in outcomes. If you find skin cancer in the very early stages, we may be able to remove it in office or with a quick surgery which needs no other treatment.
For deeper and more advanced skin cancers, we check lymph nodes that are close to the cancer and remove them, as well as the skin cancer.
For more advanced cancers, we do CT scans or other imaging tests to check lymph nodes that are farther away.
In the last few years, there is good news for people with more advanced cancers. Immunotherapy, which uses your own immune system to fight the cancer, can allow your immune system to fight off and kill the melanoma cells. Stage 4 melanoma often used to be fatal, but it isn’t anymore. This treatment is so revolutionary that the team that developed it won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2018. It is a real game changer.
The best treatment for skin cancer Is prevention. Use your sunscreen every day, and don’t put off important cancer screenings. Contact the Center for Cancer Prevention and Treatment to learn more by calling 714-734-6200.
Trevan Fischer, M.D., surgical oncologist at the Center for Cancer Prevention and Treatment, Providence St. Joseph Hospital
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.