Since 1987, June has been honored as National Cancer Survivors Month. The purpose of this month is to help raise awareness of cancer survivorship, both moments of celebration and struggle. With more than 18 million people having survived cancer in the United States, a survivor is anyone living with their diagnosis, going through treatment, or discovering life after remission.
In recognition of this month, let’s look at the most common form of cancer in the United States: Skin Cancer.
Understanding Skin Cancer
In the U.S., more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other cancers combined. It is estimated that 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by age 70. Therefore, knowing the risk to you and your loved ones is important.
There are three common types of skin cancer: basal cell, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. The type of skin cancer is based on the area of skin affected by the cancer, with melanoma being the most dangerous. Regularly visiting the dermatologist to get screened for skin cancer is critical because the five-year survival rate for melanoma is 99 percent when detected early.
Everyone is susceptible to skin cancer, but there are people at greater risk. The risk factors include:
- Lighter, natural skin
- Skin that freckles, reddens, becomes painful, or burns after being in the sun
- Blue or green eyes
- Blonde or red hair
- Certain types and a large number of moles
- Family and personal history of skin cancer
- Having 5 or more sunburns in a lifetime doubles the risk of melanoma
About 90 percent of all skin cancers are believed to be caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. UV radiation is an invisible ray known to be a human carcinogen and can come from the sun, tanning beds, and sunlamps. Protection from UV rays is essential all year round, especially outdoors, where the rays can reach you even on cool, cloudy days. Additionally, these rays can reflect off surfaces like metal, water, snow, cement, and sand. Typically, UV rays tend to be strongest in the continental U.S. from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; however, whenever the UV index is 3 or higher, your skin needs protection from sun exposure.
Guard Against UV Ray Exposure
There are several things you can do to protect yourself from UV rays. The most common form of protection is sunscreen. Using broad-spectrum sunscreen can help defend against both UVA and UVB rays. The Sun Protection Factor – or SPF – on sunscreen indicates how well it protects against UV rays, with 15 or higher providing the best protection. To be most effective, it is important to apply sunscreen to all exposed skin before you go outside. Then reapply the sunscreen every two hours or after swimming or sweating. The shelf life of sunscreen is usually three years, but it should be replaced sooner if exposed to high temperatures.
Sunscreen is even more effective at protecting your skin from damage and skin cancer risk if combined with other safeguards:
- Shade. Staying in the shade under an umbrella, tree, or shelter can reduce your risk.
- Clothing. Clothes made from tightly woven fabric will best protect your skin. And dark, dry clothing provides a better defense than wet or light clothing.
- Hat. A wide brim that circles your head will help guard your face, ears, and neck from the sun. Again, tightly woven fabric is key as straw hats have holes that the sun can shine through.
- Sunglasses. The skin around your eyes is very sensitive and can burn quickly. Additionally, exposure to UV rays has been linked to an increased risk of developing cataracts and other eye ailments.
To best protect yourself, avoid indoor tanning. Tanning beds, sun lamps, and other similar devices expose your skin to high levels of UV rays. And forming a “base tan” does not protect against sunburn. While tanned skin may be fashionable or desirable, it is also a sign that your skin has already been damaged.