When I was young, my mother always tried to keep me out of the sun. With my German and Irish heritage, as a girl I had very fair skin, strawberry blonde hair and endless freckles. As I grew a bit older, I would watch my mother bathing in the sun and feel envious of the way that she looked. She always had very dark hair, hazel eyes and after a bit of time in the sun, her skin would glow like caramel. By the time I was a teenager I was determined to be the closest thing to a modern version of Sophia Loren as I could get. I dyed my hair a dark brown and developed a very close relationship with my local tanning salon.
In my late 20’s I started to think about the aging factors of tanning. While I refused to give up tanning altogether, I did begin covering my face and using self tanner. In my mind, as long as my face stayed young looking everything else would be fine; no worries I thought. In my early to mid 30’s I began to tan a little less, mostly because my hectic schedule of work, school and my son’s activities left me with little time to hit the tanning bed. Instead I would pop in for a spray tan whenever time permitted. However, last year before my wedding, I once again returned to the tanning bed. We had a honeymoon planned for Aruba, and I was determined to be good and bronzed before we left. Four months after my wedding, I made an appointment with the dermatologist just to have a few spots checked that had appeared on my chest. I had no idea what else was in store for me.
Upon my initial visit, the doctor took a biopsy of a mark on my chest. He requested that I book extra time for one week later to hear the results of the biopsy and to have a full body check done. When I returned that next week I was told the biopsy he had taken was negative, but during my full body check, he had found another spot he was very concerned about. The doctor biopsied the mole and after yet another week of waiting, the results were in. The biopsy turned out to be positive for cancer and was classified as melanoma. Luckily, he was able to remove the cells through a second, deeper biopsy, but that appointment also led to three additional biopsies of other spots on my body the doctor was concerned with. After nearly two months of visits, biopsies and tests I was cleared, but have been told I am now at an even greater risk of developing additional melanoma.
To make matters even worse, in the midst of my own cancer scare, I received a phone call from one my friends, also a former tanning bed/sun worshiper. She informed me that she too had been diagnosed with skin cancer. Hers was not melanoma, but it did need to be removed. The spot was on her nose and to remove it they would have to cut many layers deep into the side of her nose and face. The procedure required a plastic surgeon’s touch, as there was a risk of her nose having deformities from the surgery. Thankfully, she walked out with the cancer removed and her nose intact, but also with a very nasty set of stitches and the knowledge that she too was now that much more susceptible to another cancer diagnosis in the future.
After emotionally recovering from my own scare as well as my friend’s, I decided to open my eyes and do a little more digging into the details and risks of skin cancer. To help me on this journey, I enlisted the help of some experts. Over the course of a few weeks, I traded emails with three separate dermatologists, Dr. Howard Murad, Dr. Richard Craig Bezozo and Dr. Rajiv Datta, and one fellowship-trained plastic surgeon, Dr. Adam Schaffner. Each had their own way of expressing the dangers of skin cancer, but they all agreed on the risks, dangers and methods of prevention. Like any disease or illness, knowing the statistics is a fabulous starting point. The following are compliments of Dr. Schaffner and Dr. Bezozo.
- Over 2 million people are diagnosed with skin cancer annually.
- Each year, there are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incidence of breast cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer and colon cancer.
- 4% of all cancers in women are melanoma skin cancer resulting in the second most common cancer in women between the ages of 20 and 35
- Melanoma skin cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in women 25 to 30.
Now, even after reviewing the statistics, you may still believe that you are safe knowing that you rarely take a beach vacation or layout by the pool, and you only resort to hitting the tanning bed when special occasions arise. Unfortunately, even sporadic exposure, particularly exposure to tanning beds, still puts you at risk. Dr. Murad claims that 15 to 30 minutes in a tanning bed is the equivalent to an entire day on the beach, and Dr. Schaffner argues that indoor UV tanners are 74% more likely to develop melanoma than individuals who do not tan inside. He also says that Indoor tanners are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma.
So what are the different types of cancer and how does anyone know what to look for? Dr. Datta was kind enough to share some details on the three main categories of skin cancer; basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.
- Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. It is typically found on the face, ears, scalp, neck or upper body. It usually appears as a red patch, a pink, red or white bump that is shiny or pearly or as an open sore that will not heal.
- Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer accounting for 2 in every 10 diagnoses. It is typically found on the face, ears, neck, lips and back of the hand. It usually resembles a wart or an open sore with a thick, rough, scaly patch and can often bleed if bumped or touched.
- Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. If caught early, it can be easily treated; however, it is an aggressive cancer which can spread to other parts of the body if left untreated. It can be found nearly anywhere on the body and is usually a small brown-black or multicolored patch, or a nodule with an irregular outline. Many melanomas are not new spots, but instead develop within pre-existing moles.
When asked, all four doctors were also in agreement that every person, regardless of age or skin tone, should visit their dermatologist for a full body check once a year. If you are at a higher risk for development, meaning you have a fair complexion, freckles, red or blonde hair or you have been diagnosed with skin cancer in the past, it is suggested that you visit the dermatologist twice a year or whenever you see a spot that appears to have changed. Between visits, it is important to keep tabs on things for yourself. Get to know your body and every mole or freckle that covers it. When administering self checks, the doctors suggested using the ABCDE rule. Should you notice any of these warning signs when doing your own examinations, see a dermatologist immediately.
- A – Asymmetry: One half is different than the other half
- B – Border of Irregularity: The edges are notched, uneven or blurred
- C – Color: The color is uneven. Shades of brown, tan and black are present
- D – Diameter: The diameter is greater than 6 mm
- E – Evolving: The mole is changing or growing
Each doctor also agreed that most people continue to underestimate their chances of being diagnosed with skin cancer. While it is true that the more exposure you have to the sun and indoor UV rays, the greater your chances, you do not have to be a sun goddess to be at risk. The fact is that just one sunburn, even if it occurred as a small child, is enough damage to eventually lead to skin cancer. To best protect yourself and the people you love, the following guidelines are suggested:
- Minimize exposure in the sun between 10:00 am and 3:00 pm
- Apply sunscreen to all areas of the body that is exposed to the sun
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours, even when it is a cloudy day
- Wear clothing that covers the body and shades the face
- Avoid all indoor UV exposure from tanning beds and sunlamps
With summer rapidly approaching, we all want to make the most of it. So go ahead, have your barbeques, picnics and pool parties; just be smart about it. Keep sunscreen on hand at all times, especially for the little ones and try to stay shaded between 10:00 am and 3:00 pm. And remember, gorgeous, glowing skin no longer needs to come from the sun. With vast improvements in self tanners and the invention of the spray tan, you can still get your glow on without putting your health at risk.
For additional information on skin cancer and skin cancer prevention, visit Skin Cancer