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By Dr. Athena Kaporis, Dermatology
With the first day of summer soon to be upon us, and May being National Skin Cancer and Melanoma Awareness Month, now is the perfect time to remember three key words: Detection, Prevention and Protection.
As is the case with many serious medical conditions, early detection can be key to treating skin cancers and melanomas; the quicker that potential problems are found, the quicker they can be addressed. Simply put: early detection saves lives.
I recommend checking your skin once a month for any new growths or unusual changes in the color and shape of your moles. Try setting aside a certain day each month – for instance, the 1st of the month – to perform a body check. Your partner or a handheld mirror can help check your back for the aforementioned signs.
Examining your body on a set schedule will not only become routine; it will also establish a baseline against which you will be more likely to find new or changing abnormalities. Also note any “ugly duckling signs” – a mole or spot that looks different than the others or is lighter or darker than its peers. Most moles and freckles on one’s body look similar to each other. Any spot that is changing, should be examined by a board-certified dermatologist immediately.
In addition, if you have a mole that is itching or bleeding, or any abrasion that bleeds or scabs and doesn’t seem to be healing, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.
Here Comes the Sun
Sun exposure is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancers. Too much time spent exposed to the sun without using proper sunscreen is associated with increased risk for skin cancer. If you’re on the beach or at a summer sporting event, seek shade, wear a hat or other coverups, and apply sunscreen. I recommend a product with an SPF of 30 or above.
Keep in mind that there are two types of sunscreens. Chemical lotions use several ingredients which absorb the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays in a way that is not harmful to the skin. Physical (sometimes called “natural” or “mineral”) sunscreens contain two ingredients (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) and deflect or reflect the sun’s rays.
All sunscreens need to be reapplied, as sweat and wind wear them away. Depending on what activity you are engaged in, you may want to reapply every couple of hours.
A word of caution: The lab tests used to determine a sunscreen’s SPF number may differ significantly from what a consumer expects and experiences. Labs typically apply a much thicker coat of a given sunscreen when testing to assign a SPF value, then does the general public. In fact, we usually use about ¼ of the thickness that the labs do.
But protective measures shouldn’t only be taken at the beach. The other day I saw a patient whose neck was obviously sunburned; she explained that she’d dutifully put sunscreen on her face but had forgotten about her neck while gardening.
Many people don’t realize how intense the sun can be. UV rays can penetrate clouds, so although it may seem counterintuitive, you should consider applying sunscreen if you’re going to be outdoors for long periods.
Other Risk Factors
Preventable risk factors are sun exposure when it comes to melanoma/skin cancer. A family history of such conditions or a history of other cancers (such as breast and thyroid) and even one’s sex and ethnicity can be factors. Rates of melanoma are increasing every year.
In addition, fair-skinned adolescent males and young adults are about twice as likely to die of melanoma than their fair-skinned female counterparts. By the age of 65, men are about twice as likely to get melanoma than are women; that number increases to nearly three times by age 80.
With no way of changing those characteristics, it is recommended that someone with stable skin see a dermatologist at least once every two years. Patients with a lot of sun damage, including freckles and other spots, and/or have a family history of skin cancer/melanoma, should be examined every six months.
I cannot overstate the fact that everyone must be checked. You can’t assume that something different on your skin is “nothing.” Again, the sooner the detection, the quicker the solution. If your doctor confirms that a new melanoma is present, they will probably remove it immediately. If, however, the melanoma has been allowed to grow bigger and deeper, it can start invading blood vessels and possibly the lymph nodes, something requiring considerably more complex surgery with a less certain outcome.
Most melanomas are very treatable and preventable at the early stage. But everyone should take responsibility and look at their own skin regularly.
Dr. Athena Kaporis is a board-certified dermatologist at White Plains Hospital Physician Associates, seeing patients at 185 Kisco Avenue, Mount Kisco, N.Y. To schedule an appointment, call 914-242-2020.