May is melanoma month, and it’s starting to warm up out there! Take a moment to remind yourself of some skin cancer prevention and detection tips before you head outside to enjoy the weather.
While you may think that skin cancer isn’t a frequently occurring disease, or that you aren’t at risk if you don’t live in a tropical country, that is unfortunately not the case. It is estimated that in 2017, 7, 200 Canadians will be diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer and 74, 000 cases of non-melanoma skin cancer (Canadian Cancer Society; Canadian Skin Patient Alliance).
It is true that certain populations are more at risk of developing skin cancer, such as those who have skin cancer in their family, are fair-skinned, or are taking any medication that may suppress their immune system. However, anyone who had frequent or extreme sunburns in adolescence, or continues to spend prolonged, unprotected time in the sun, is dramatically increasing their risk of developing skin cancer.
While some of these circumstances are unavoidable, it is possible to reduce your risk of skin cancer by taking some simple precautionary measures while enjoying your time in the sun.
The most important sun safety tip is to limit your exposure to it. Enjoy the outdoors, but take these first precautions:
- Limit sun exposure between 10am-4pm
- Cover up as much as possible with light pants or a light, long-sleeved shirt
- Seek shade whenever possible!
- Do not use tanning beds
Another important sun safety tool at your disposal is sunscreen. Whether you are spending a day at the beach, eating lunch outside, or just running errands, it is important that you apply a sunscreen of at least SPF 30 and that is broad spectrum (if you are in Canada), which will protect you against both UVA and UVB rays. When you apply sunscreen, try to do so 20 minutes before going outside, and use approximately an ounce during each application. Reapply your sunscreen at least once an hour, more frequently if you are sweating or swimming.
Other sunscreen tips include:
- Carry a travel-sized sunscreen with you at all times, so you are always prepared!
- Cream or lotion-based sunscreens provide better coverage than sprays.
- Make a list of the places you often forget, and cover them first– often-forgotten spots include the tops of feet, backs of hands, neck and ears.
- Don’t forget to wear sunscreen if you’re up the mountain in the winter– snow is reflective, and can increase risk of sunburns!
- Wear a lip balm with at least SPF 15
Skin cancer has many appearances, and can manifest anywhere on the skin– even under the surface. It is important to know what to look for, and when to seek the advice of a medical professional. Generally, skin cancers are categorized as either melanomas, which in 2017 made up 3.9% of cancers diagnosed in males, and 3.2% of cancers diagnosed in females, or non-melanoma skin cancers, which are recognized to be the most commonly diagnosed cancer among Canadians (Canadian Cancer Society). The most common non-melanoma skin cancers are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Both of these, and melanoma, can manifest in the epidermis, the outermost layer of skin. More information about what these moles may look like can be found further along in this blog post, with the “ABCDEFG”s of skin checks.
Assessing a lesion takes less than five minutes, so if you see something new, or an old spot that is changing, see your doctor. Many non-melanoma skin cancers are easily removed or treated.
While checking your skin for moles, you should also be keeping an eye out for actinic keratosis, also known as solar keratosis. Actinic keratosis generally develops in older people on sun-exposed areas of the skin. Actinic keratosis feels like a rough patch on the skin, and may become visible as red scaly patches; it is often confused with eczema. It may feel tender to the touch. If left untreated, actinic keratosis may develop into squamous cell carcinoma.
(“Actinic Keratosis.” Scars Center.)
It is important to know your own skin, so you can be aware of any changes. We would recommend marking your calendar once a month to check your skin, and your loved ones, using the skin-check guide below.
Steps of a Skin Cancer Self-Exam:
- Using a mirror in a well-lit room, check the front of your body -face, neck, shoulders, arms, chest, abdomen, thighs and lower legs.
- Turn sideways, raise your arms and look carefully at the right and left sides of your body, including the underarm area.
- With a hand-held mirror, check your upper back, neck and scalp. Next, examine your lower back, buttocks, backs of thighs and calves.
- Examine your forearms, palms, back of the hands, fingernails and in between each finger.
- Finally, check your feet – the tops, soles, toenails, toes and spaces in between.
(Canadian Dermatology Association, patient handout “Melanoma Skin Cancer: Know the Signs, Save a Life” 2009.)
When checking your own skin or that of your loved ones, keep in mind the “ABCDE’s of skin checks.”
- A – Asymmetry. The shape of one half does not match the other half.
- B – Border that is irregular. The edges are often ragged, notched, or blurred in outline. The pigment may spread into the surrounding skin.
- C – Colour that is uneven. Shades of black, brown, and tan may be present. Areas of white, grey, red, pink, or blue may also be seen.
- D – Diameter. There is a change in size, usually an increase. Melanomas can be tiny, but most are larger than 6 millimeters wide (about 1/4 inch wide).
- E – Evolving. The mole has changed over the past few weeks or months.
- F – Firm. Is the mole harder than the surrounding skin?
- G – Growing. Is the mole gradually getting larger?
If you see any of these signs, see your doctor. Having a lesion assessed takes very little time, and earlier detection means easier treatment.
This melanoma month, don’t forget to practice sun safety, check your skin and your loved ones, and join the fight against skin cancer by supporting patient groups.