How to tackle the skin cancer epidemic
In America, one person dies every hour from skin cancer called malignant melanoma – and rates are increasing. In fact, the incidence of melanoma among young adults (especially females) has increased more than 250 percent over the past four decades. Floridians are at particular risk for this deadly cancer due to overexposure to ultraviolet light.
What can we do to protect ourselves from skin cancer like melanoma?
Prevention is the only way to protect yourself from skin cancer. We get a ton of UV light here in The Sunshine State, even on cloudy, overcast days. Many people get way more UV radiation than their skin can handle, which leads to DNA damage. The problem is that it takes an average of 25 years after a sunburn (or tanning bed use) to form a skin cancer – it doesn’t happen overnight. So children and young people have to be smart about their sun exposure to prevent skin cancer later in life. If you’re one of the many adults who got too much sun as a young person, unfortunately there’s no way to undo the damage that’s accumulated.
So what can you do now to prevent melanoma skin cancer?
Get your skin checked! Once DNA damage happens in your skin from excessive sun, there’s not much that you can do except try to spot skin cancer at its earliest stage. The fact is that early detection of melanoma saves lives. If you’re at risk for skin cancer, you owe it to yourself to get your skin checked at a dermatologist’s office. Melanoma, if caught early, is almost always 100 percent curable with minor surgery. If left to grow, melanoma readily spreads to distant sites in the body.
How do dermatologists spot skin cancer early?
Dermatologists are experts in detecting skin cancer at its earliest stages through visual inspection of the skin. Sometimes specialized magnifying lenses or unique tools (called dermatoscopes) are used. It’s critical that Floridians get in the habit of looking at their own skin at home every few months and/or get a loved one involved; any changing or unusual areas should prompt a call to your dermatologist’s office ASAP. Everyone should learn how to detect melanoma – it can save your life.
If you’ve had a lot of sun in the past, what can you do to protect yourself going forward?
Sunscreens form the backbone of any skin cancer prevention strategy. Most people don’t use nearly enough and they forget to reapply every couple of hours. Make sure you’re using SPF 30 and that the bottle says broad spectrum. My favorite ingredient is zinc oxide, an inert metal that goes on sheer and is a great blocker to protect skin from UV light.
One thing to remember though, is that sunscreen is just one tool in the fight against skin cancer. Hats, UV-protection sunglasses, shirts/rash guards, and umbrellas are critical, especially for children. Have fun in the sun, but be smart about it. And if you’re concerned, get checked!
Dr. J. Matthew Knight is a board-certified dermatologist and native Central Floridian. He is the president of Knight Dermatology Institute with offices in Lake Mary and Orlando and is the current president of the Florida Society of Dermatology & Dermatologic Surgery.
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