One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.
As far as health concerns go, we tend to look at sunburns as more of an annoyance than a big health risk. Even skin cancer, we often look at as less of a serious problem because it’s often treatable. More than any other factors, the sun and tanning beds increase our risk of skin cancer. While we benefit from some sunshine in terms of vitamin D production, exposure to the point of sunburn is an indication of traumatic damage to the skin.
This is a bigger crisis than many of us recognize.
Two million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer every year.* We hear the words “skin cancer” and picture giant frightening melanomas, but skin cancers are often much more subtle and get missed. Since skin cancer is often treatable, many people are less concerned about the risks. However, skin cancers on the face, head, neck or ears that go undiagnosed may spread to the brain or lymph nodes.
There are also many myths and misconceptions about sun damage and skin cancer that keep people from receiving timely diagnosis and treatment.
“I tan easily so I’m not at risk.”
While fair skinned people are at higher risk in general, people who tan well and frequently increase their risk due to the overall amount of sun exposure.
“I haven’t gotten a sunburn since I was a kid.”
One blistering sunburn in a lifetime increases skin cancer risk. Even if your last sunburn was over 10 years ago, it’s important to notice changes in your skin.
“Dark skinned people don’t get skin cancer.”
While Caucasians have the highest incidence of skin cancer, African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans have a higher rate of fatality from skin cancer, and squamous cell carcinomas tend to spread more aggressively in these populations.
“It’s treatable. If I get it, I can get it removed.”
Sometimes, that’s the case, but for 9,180 people last year, skin cancer was fatal. There are more new cases of skin cancer annually in the U.S. than breast, lung, prostate and colon cancers combined. While of the three types of skin cancer (basal cell, squamous cell and melanoma) the most common basal cell type is often the most treatable, it is also just as likely as the other two types to spread to other parts of the body. Some basal cell carcinomas are as subtle looking as a small skin tag or a patch of dry skin that doesn’t go away. The longer it takes for a cancerous growth to be diagnosed and treated, the more likely it is to spread to other parts of the body.
So how can we protect ourselves?
1. Limit overall sun exposure.
Studies over the last few years have had mixed things to report about the additional risks of some chemically based sunscreens. A good practice is to use a physical block sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 (such as one containing zinc oxide), limit overall time in the sun and wear protective clothing during times of excessive sun exposure.
2. Pay attention to changes in your skin.
When you look at moles or growths on your skin, think ABCD. Is it asymmetrical? Does it have uneven borders? Has the color changed? What is the diameter of the mole? A healthcare professional can examine these in greater detail, but this is a great place to start when checking yourself or a loved one.
3. See if your insurance covers an annual full body dermatology check if you know you are at risk.
Sadly, many do not. Most people do not receive a full body check from any physician on a regular basis. This is one reason there is an increasing focus on education within the massage therapy community to assist therapists in identifying potential cancerous changes in the skin. Note: a massage therapist or body worker cannot diagnose skin cancer, or any other condition. However, if you are receiving massage on a regular basis, he or she may be able to note changes in the skin and refer you to a medical professional.
4. Quit smoking.
Smoking increases your risk of developing skin cancer (among other health risks) by 52 percent.
5. Include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet.
In addition to their other health benefits, fruits and vegetables give the body an antioxidant boost that may help prevent or fight cancer.
The annoyance of a sunburn today could mean serious consequences down the road. As a fair-skinned person myself, I’ve had several bad burns, and have my skin checked regularly for any changes that are cause for concern. If I miss a spot with the sunscreen or am overexposed, I take care to treat my skin immediately and avoid sun exposure until it has completely healed. Sunscreen 365 days a year? Yep. And this is why:
*All statistics via the Skin Cancer Foundation and The World Skin Project, an organization dedicated to continuing education and advocacy about skin cancer for the massage therapy community.
Photo credit: Flickr / Foxtongue