Skin Cancer Facts: Most Cases Are Preventable

Sun protection is important year-round in places like San Diego

A dermatologist from Scripps Clinic in San Diego weighs in on skin cancer prevention.

Sun protection is important year-round in places like San Diego

Putting on sunscreen may come to mind before hitting the beach or backyard pool on a hot, sunny day. But there is usually more you can do to protect your skin and reduce your risk of developing skin cancer any time you go outside.

“As more people resume many of the activities that were put on hold or were limited during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to always remember to protect you skin when you’re outside in the sun,” says Hubert Greenway, Jr., MD, a dermatologist and director of Cutaneous Oncology at Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Dr. Greenway says people who are at higher risk to develop skin cancer should schedule periodic skin checks with their dermatologist. “During the pandemic, we’ve seen more people coming in with larger and more advanced skin cancer cases because they delayed coming for treatment.”

What is skin cancer awareness?

Skin cancer awareness means understanding that skin cancer is largely preventable and that there are different kinds of sun protection.

Experts recommend keeping a tote bag with sun protection items handy to grab whenever you go outside to avoid getting a sunburn.

Make sure to include:

  • A lightweight long-sleeved shirt or cover-up
  • A hat with a wide brim that shades your face, head, ears, and neck
  • Sunglasses to protect your eyes and surrounding skin
  • Sunscreen with at least 30 sun protection factor (SPF) and broad-spectrum protection

“Everyone needs to protect their skin from sun damage,” says Dr. Greenway. “In Southern California, where the sun’s rays burn stronger than in milder climates, using broad spectrum sunscreen with at least 30 SPF should be a daily ritual.”

Skin cancer facts

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. Skin cancer has a high survival rate if caught early.

In addition:

  • Anyone can get skin cancer, but some are at higher risk including people with fair skin or family history of skin cancer.
  • Unprotected skin can be damaged by the sun’s ultraviolet rays (UV) in as little as 15 minutes.
  • Reflected rays from water, sand or snow magnifies their effect and the risk of a burn.
  • Even on cool and cloudy days, you still need sun protection since UV rays, not temperature, do the damage.

“Being aware of the risks of sun exposure and the many things you can do to protect your skin are important skin cancer preventive steps,” Dr. Greenway says. “Self-vigilance is just as important, especially knowing the early signs and symptoms of skin cancer.”

What are the types of skin cancer?

There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer as it is more likely to spread to other parts of the body.

Melanoma accounts for less than 2 percent of all skin cancer cases, but it causes a large majority of skin cancer deaths. It is also one of the most common cancers in people younger than 30, especially younger women.

Overexposure to the sun plays a role in all three skin cancer types.

“Cumulative sun exposure is a major skin cancer risk factor for developing nonmelanoma skin cancer,” Dr. Greenway explains. “Episodes of acute sunburn are often linked to melanoma.” And while a severe sunburn will heal on the surface in a few days, the real damage may not emerge until decades later.

Reduce sun exposure

Skin cancer is considered largely preventable because exposure to the sun’s UV rays, which is the main cause, can be reduced.

Dr. Greenway recommends staying out of the sun during the most intense hours, between 10 am and 2 pm. So, plan your tennis match, tee time or surfing session early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

When it comes to tanning beds, Dr. Greenway says simply to avoid them.

“Exposure to damaging rays should be avoided whether they are natural or artificial. Tanning beds raise the risk of melanoma. They also dry the skin, causing wrinkles and premature aging.”

Skin cancer detection

While genetics is a risk factor, the fact is anyone who ever had a sunburn is at risk for skin cancer and should practice awareness.

“Regardless of their family history or personal risk, people should watch for atypical moles, which tend to be multicolored and asymmetrical,” Dr. Greenway says.

Precancerous moles tend to form on the head, neck, upper back, torso or lower legs, but can be found anywhere on the skin.

Moles should be self-checked monthly. Mirrors and digital photographs can be useful to observe and track them. If a mole becomes darker, develops ragged borders or appears to be changing, see a dermatologist.

An itchy mole can also indicate problems. If a mole just seems more obvious, it’s a good idea to get it checked by a dermatologist.

Skin cancer treatment

The earlier melanoma is found, the easier it is to treat. Once the disease has spread, it becomes a serious problem.

“In its earliest stages, melanoma can be removed surgically,” says Dr. Greenway, who is also head of Bighorn Mohs Surgery and Dermatology Center at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines.

Mohs surgery is a precise surgical technique used for treating melanoma and other skin cancers. During this procedure, layers of cancer-containing skin are progressively removed and examined until only cancer-free tissue remains.

If melanoma has spread to the lymph nodes, other therapies may be required.

Make skin cancer awareness year-round

Skin cancer awareness has increased in recent decades as more becomes known about this type of cancer, including prevention and treatments.

“Always remember that the most effective way to beat melanoma and other skin cancers is prevention,” Dr. Greenway says. “Otherwise, early detection is the best bet. Monthly self-exams and annual checkups can be life-savers.”

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