Skin cancer is the most common cancer type in the United States, with at least 9,500 Americans diagnosed every day. The incidence rate of both melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancer continues to increase. There are more than 5.4 million new cases of nonmelanoma skin cancer in the U.S. annually, while more than two people are dying of skin cancer every hour. These raise concerns for both patients and the health care system. With almost $8.1 billion in annual treatment costs, it’s high time we take skin cancer seriously.
Skin cancer is a major problem, especially in the summer when the sun is the hottest. Non-melanoma skin cancers, such as basal and squamous cell carcinoma, are slow to spread and often respond to topical treatment or minor surgery. However, melanomas are more troublesome to treat and may have lasting, even lethal consequences.
Staying under direct sunlight for too long exposes you to ultraviolet (UV) rays, a major risk factor that causes damage to your skin. With the hottest season now upon us (in Northern Hemisphere), taking extra measures to limit exposure to sunlight may help you lower your chances of developing skin cancer.
Type of Cancers Linked to Sunlight Exposure
There are three types of cancer associated with overexposure to sunlight. They include:
Basal Cell Cancer
Basal cell cancer (BCC) is the most common of all cancers in North America and Europe, accounting for nearly 80% of all skin cancers. It occurs most often on areas of the skin exposed to sunlight, such as your head and neck. But sometimes, it can also develop on parts of your body usually protected from the sun, such as the genitals.
While there’s a chance it could progress, basal cell cancer is rarely fatal. And since it does not spread, most cases are easily treated and cured.
Squamous Cell Cancer
Squamous cell cancer (SCC) occurs most frequently in areas of the body damaged by UV rays from overexposure to the sun or tanning beds. These areas include the forehead, nose, cheeks, chest, arms, lips, and top of the ear.
Although SCC is slow-growing skin cancer, it can spread to bones, tissues, and nearby lymph nodes, making it harder to treat. The latest figures suggest that more than 15,000 Americans die of SCC yearly.
Melanoma is the most invasive skin cancer that arises from melanin cells within the upper layer of the skin (epidermis) or similar cells found in moles. If a mole is malignant, it will begin to bleed, grow, or change its color or shape. Although malignant melanoma is serious skin cancer, it’s highly curable when caught early.
The exact correlation between malignant melanoma and sunlight is not completely clear yet. But statistics suggest that if you had just one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence, it more than doubles your likelihood of developing melanoma later in life.
What are the Risks?
When the body does not repair damage to the DNA inside skin cells, it allows the cells to divide and grow uncontrollably, leading to skin cancer. Various factors may cause skin cell damage, but the most common risks of skin cancer are the following:
- UV Exposure: Most people develop skin cancers because of too much exposure to Ultraviolet (UV) light. UV light is a type of radiation that comes from sunlight, tanning beds, UV lamps, and lasers that can damage skin cells. Around 90% of non-melanoma skin cancers are associated with exposure to UV radiation from the sun.
- Fair Skin: According to the American Cancer Society, melanoma is more than 20 times more common in white people than in African-Americans. Furthermore, whites with red or blond hair, blue or green eyes, or skin that burns or freckles easily are at increased risk.
- Age: While skin cancer is more likely to occur as you age, melanoma is one of the most common cancers in people younger than 30 (especially ywomen). The risk is also higher in individuals who had at least one severe (blistering) sunburn as a child or used sunlamps or tanning beds at a younger age. Data suggests that 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by age 70.
- Family History: Around 10% of all people with melanoma had one or more first degree-relatives (parents, siblings, or children) with a skin cancer history.
- Multiple Moles: Moles are non-cancerous pigmented tumors that often appear in children and young adults. You can only find 20-30% of melanomas in existing moles. But having many moles increases the likelihood that it can develop into melanoma.
- Weakened Immune System: Your immune system is responsible for defending your body from certain diseases. When your immune system is weak, you’re more likely to develop many types of skin cancer, including melanoma.
How to Protect Your Skin From the Sun?
It is virtually impossible to go through life with no sun exposure. Not to mention enjoy the festivities that the summer brings. Thankfully, there are several ways to protect yourself from the sun and minimize the risk of developing skin cancer. When spending your time outdoors, make sure to:
1. Stay in the shade
Shade is one of the most effective ways to protect yourself against UV radiation from the sun. By staying in the shade under a tree, canopy, umbrella, or other shelters, you can avoid direct sun exposure and reduce your risk of sun damage up to 50-95%.
2. Use sunscreen
Sunscreens protect the skin by blocking UV radiation from being absorbed by the skin. When going outdoors, use a sunscreen that can block both UVA and UVB rays and has an SPF of 15 or higher. Make sure to apply a thick layer on all exposed skin, such as on your arms and back, to prevent sunburns and skin cancers.
However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recommend using sunscreen on infants. Instead, they suggest keeping infants out of the sun during midday (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.). If they have to be in the sun, make sure they are using protective clothing.
3. Cover up
Wear clothing such as long-sleeved shirts, long pants, or skirts to cover skin exposed to the sun. It is another way to reduce UV radiation from penetrating your skin. If you’re going to the beach or other similar places, you can wear t-shirts or beach cover-ups. Make sure to stay dry, though. Wet clothes have much less UV protection.
For the best protection, choose clothes that have darker colors and are certified under international standards for UV protection. You can also use a pair of sunglasses to reduce the risk of cataracts. It can help protect the tender skin around your eyes from sun exposure.
4. Wear a hat
If you feel that clothes and sunglasses are not enough, wear a hat for additional protection from the sun. Choose a hat with a brim than can shade your face, ears, and the back of your neck. Also, avoid straw hats with holes. They can still let sunlight through and won’t offer that much protection.
Since no skin cancer patient is the same, treatment options for skin cancer may vary depending on the size, type, depth, and location of lesions. Most basal cell and squamous carcinomas are treatable with outpatient surgery, but melanomas usually require more extensive treatments.
Here are some of the most common treatment options for skin cancer. Keep in mind it is better to prevent skin cancer than to have to treat it:
- Surgery: It involves the removal of cancer cells along with a small amount of surrounding skin. With a 99% cure rate, Mohs surgery is the most effective technique for treating BCCs and SCCs.
- Topical treatments: In some cases, nonsurgical therapy is a viable and relatively cost-effective treatment option. Tropical treatment is an alternative to surgery in removing or destroying localized skin cancer cells. For example, topical imiquimod cream can cure 65% to 100% of nonmelanoma skin cancers.
- Radiation therapy: External beam radiation therapy (ERBT) is a practical option for head and neck skin cancer. It is an efficient and safe non-surgical treatment in patients with basal cell and squamous carcinomas. It has a survival rate of 91.7%, with no grade 3 complications.
- Targeted therapy: It is a type of melanoma treatment that uses drugs to identify and stop the action of molecules that help cancer cells grow, divide, and spread, particularly in advanced basal cell carcinoma.
- Biological therapy: This treatment uses your body’s immune system to destroy cancer cells.
Be Safe in the Sun
Summer is the perfect time to enjoy a dip at the beach, have fun outdoor activities, or revel in a festive backyard barbecue with friends and family. Spending time outside presents an excellent opportunity to be physically active, reduce stress, and get Vitamin D. However, it’s also important to remember that overexposure to the sun may have harmful side effects, including your risk of skin cancer.
Unlike other cancers, universal screening (catching cancer early enough to treat it) may not be the right approach for skin cancer prevention. Instead, you need to focus on preventing skin cancer from developing in the first place. Reducing exposure to UV radiation is one of the best ways to prevent skin cancer. You don’t need to avoid the sun altogether, but you should protect yourself from sun damage.
When spending time outdoors, don’t forget to put on sunscreen and wear appropriate clothes . Cover as much skin as you can and stay away from direct sunlight. Go be safe in the sun and enjoy the summer!