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Skin Health

Understanding, Preventing, and Identifying Skin Cancer This Winter

Deborah S. Sarnoff, MD

President, The Skin Cancer Foundation

By taking steps to protect skin from the sun’s rays and identify any suspicious lesions early, everyone can stay on top of skin cancer prevention and detection.

Heading into winter, it may be tempting to slack off on sun protection. But even as temperatures cool down, keeping skin safe from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation should remain a priority. Most UV rays can penetrate cloud cover, so they can reach the earth on stormy or overcast days year-round. The majority of skin cancers are associated with exposure to UV radiation from the sun, and any time you spend outside unprotected will also increase your chance of developing the disease.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the world, and not by a small margin — more cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the United States every year than every other cancer combined. It’s a daunting statistic, but there is reason to be optimistic. Skin cancer is highly preventable as well as being a cancer you can see. This means you can take a proactive approach to lower your skin cancer risk and catch any potential skin cancers early enough to have them successfully treated.

The three most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma. All three occur when unrepaired DNA damage in skin cells triggers mutations, or genetic defects, that cause the cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumors. This damage is often caused by UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds.

Prevention is key when it comes to reducing your risk of developing skin cancer. The Skin Cancer Foundation has always recommended a complete sun protection strategy that includes seeking shade, covering up with clothing, hats, and sunglasses, and wearing sunscreen every day. Of course, avoiding indoor tanning beds is imperative.

Most skin cancers can be successfully treated if caught early. Melanoma is more likely to metastasize, or spread, to other areas of the body and become more advanced. Still, the estimated five-year survival rate for patients whose melanoma is detected early is about 99 percent. The survival rate falls to 65 percent when the disease reaches the lymph nodes and 25 percent when the disease metastasizes to distant organs. While a far smaller percentage of SCCs metastasize, the numbers are higher, and as many as 15,000 people die each year from the disease.

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends everyone see a dermatologist annually for a professional skin exam. Certain high-risk individuals may need to see their dermatologist more often. In addition, you should be checking your skin from head to toe carefully once a month. Skin cancers can vary incredibly in appearance, from red pimple-like growths to dark moles, scaly patches to small nodules, itchy bumps to bleeding sores. The bottom line is that if you see anything new, changing, or unusual on your skin, get it checked out by a dermatologist as soon as possible.

By taking sun protection seriously and checking in with your skin on a regular basis, everyone can enjoy any time outside without putting themselves at risk of developing skin cancer.

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