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Sun Worshipper? Today's Your Day

Guys over 50 likeliest to get skin cancer

MONDAY, May 7 (HealthScout) -- All those years basking in the sun may come home to roost -- as skin cancer -- especially if you're a middle-aged white man with fair skin, a new study says.

"We analyzed data on a quarter million Americans who came in for a free skin cancer screening," says study co-author Alan Geller, research associate professor at the schools of medicine and public health at Boston University.

"If [the men] also reported a mole or dark spot on the skin that changed, the risk [of melanoma] when compared with younger men and all women, was two to three times stronger," Geller says.

The findings were announced by the American Academy of Dermatology to coincide with free skin cancer screenings during May, Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection Month.

Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, but is very treatable when caught in the early stages. Characterized by the uncontrolled growth of pigment-producing cells, it shows up as an irregularly shaped, often multi-colored, ragged-edged mole.

"Moles tend to regress as people get into their 30s and 40s," says Geller. "We are speculating there's something about the presence of a mole in the 50s and 60s, which raises a warning sign."

Geller says no one is quite sure what causes the skin cancer. "That's the million-dollar question, but since the average age of diagnosis is about 52, the conjecture is that most of this disease is something that occurred from sun exposure when younger. We think it's a combination of sunburn, maybe before the age of 18, and something genetic."

Though most frequently found on the upper backs of men and women or on the calves of women, melanomas can appear anywhere on the body, even where there are no moles.

Checking for signs of other skin cancers, is equally important, says Dr. Desiree Ratner, director of dermatologic surgery at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center of New York Presbyterian Hospital.

"Other skin cancers can bleed. They can ulcerate," Ratner says. Melanoma, on the other hand, will probably only bleed in the later stages. But she says, "Skin cancers, when caught early, are relatively easy to treat and pose little danger to the affected individual."

Practice Self-examination

Experts recommend carefully examining your back or asking your doctor to, especially if you were a sun worshipper, or if there's a family history.

Follow the ABCDs recommended by experts to spot a possible melanoma in its earliest, and treatable stages. Look for:

  • Asymmetry. If one half the mole doesn't match the other.
  • Border. Look for irregularity or ragged edges.
  • Color. The pigment of a changing mole is not uniform. You may see shades of tan, brown, black and even red, white or blue.
  • Diameter. Any mole larger than a pencil eraser should be checked immediately.

Geller says melanoma caught in the early stages is "associated with a 96 percent, five-year survival rate."

What To Do:

Today is Melanoma Monday, and you can get a free cancer screening at a site near you, courtesy of the American Academy of Dermatology. Click here for a list of screening facilities.

Prevent skin cancer by following these basic suggestions from the American Academy of Dermatologists:

Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun-protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. The higher the number, the longer you're protected from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays.

Use your sunscreen every day if you're going to be outside more than 20 minutes and pay particular attention to your face, ears, hands and arms. Generously coat any exposed portion of skin.

And, don't forget to reapply the sunscreen every two hours, immediately after swimming or after strenuous activity.

Find out the simple steps you can take to prevent skin cancer from the Melanoma Patients' Information Page.

And read how to use sunscreen agents.

For more HealthScout stories on skin cancer, click here.

SOURCES: Interviews with Alan Geller, M.Ph., research associate professor, Boston University, School of medicine and School of Public Health; Dr. Desiree Ratner, director of dermatologic surgery, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center of New York Presbyterian Hospital, New York City
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