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Sun Worshippers, Beware

Skin cancer can be just a few burns away

SUNDAY, May 27, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Just in time for Memorial Day and the unofficial start of summer, the American Academy of Dermatology has some words of warning about the sun.

With cases of skin cancer on the rise, the academy has designated May as "Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month," to raise awareness about the sun's harmful effects and the importance of getting skin-cancer screenings.

Central to the message is that you can take effective measures to cut your risk of getting skin cancer without having to shun the sun altogether.

"The main factors in preventing skin cancer are wearing a sunscreen of at least 15 SPF (sun protection factor), staying out of the sun during mid-day, when it's strongest, and wearing protective clothing," advises Dr. Roger Ceilley, past president of the American Academy of Dermatology and a clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Iowa.

Because the head is the part of your body that's usually closest to the sun, it is one of the most important areas to watch, adds Mary O'Connell, director of skin cancer initiatives for the American Cancer Society.

"The hair provides some protection, but if you have some hair loss, obviously that's going to be exposed, and the fact is, you can get skin cancer on any area of the skin," O'Connell says.

"We recommend wearing a hat with a brim because that protects your face, ears and neck, which are where the majority of cancers occur," she adds.

But even the precautions you take today aren't going to undo the damage you may have done to your skin already. That's why it's essential that people considered at a higher risk of skin cancer -- those with skin cancer in their family history or with fair skin -- get regular screenings.

"There have been studies showing that 80 percent of your skin's damage occurs before the age of 20," Ceilley says. "So we recommend that people do a full skin examination on themselves every month, and those who are at high risk get checked on an annual basis by a dermatologist."

And what exactly do you look for when checking yourself?

Ceilley says try looking for what are known as the "A, B, C, Ds" of melanoma:

  • "A" stands for asymetrical -- meaning one side of a mole could be a little different from the other.
  • "B" stands for the mole's border -- see if it looks "irregular."
  • "C" stands for color -- watch for moles that have a mix of colors like blue, black or gray.
  • "D" stands for diameter -- "If it's bigger than a pencil eraser (about 5 millimeters), that's another danger sign."

About 75 percent of all skin cancers in the United States are a relatively benign form called basal cell carcinoma, and another 20 percent are the slightly more serious squamous cell carcinoma.

The most serious form of skin cancer, however, is melanoma.

"Around 40,000 to 50,000 cases of skin cancer each year are melanomas, and those represent the majority of deaths from skin cancer," Ceilley says. "In fact, someone dies from melanoma skin cancer every hour in this country."

O'Connell adds that experts are troubled by the surge in melanoma cases.

"The rate of melanoma has been increasing about 3 percent a year since the 1980s. That's down from about 6 percent in the early '70s, but it's a concern because most other types of cancer rates are leveling off or are even dropping," she says.

"In addition, it's a concern because [melanoma] is relatively easy to prevent. We know what causes it," O'Connell adds. "We know that excessive and unprotected exposure to ultraviolet light in the sun causes the damage. So, we're trying to encourage people to know that and take the precautions of covering up when they're outdoors and using sunscreen on the areas that aren't covered."

What To Do

Visit the American Cancer Society for more information on melanoma. Also, the American Academy of Dermatology has plenty of skin cancer resources.

And read more about skin cancer in these HealthDay stories.

SOURCES: Interviews with Roger Ceilley, M.D., past president of the American Academy of Dermatology and clinical professor of dermatology at University of Iowa, Iowa City; Mary O'Connell, director of skin cancer initiatives for the American Cancer Society, Atlanta, Ga.; American Academy of Dermatology press release
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