Robert Burger, MD, Director, Women’s Cancer Center at Fox Chase Cancer Center
After a long winter, summer is finally here and off to a warm start. I know that many of you are taking advantage of the sun by going to the beach, working in your garden, or just spending more time outside. But are you protecting your skin while enjoying these activities? This is an important question, since a recent survey by the American Academy of Dermatology found that only 35 percent of people surveyed were aware that any type of ultraviolet rays are unsafe for your skin, and that skin cancer is the most common of all cancers.
To provide some helpful guidelines, I asked Stuart Lessin, MD, Fox Chase’s Director of Dermatology, to offer sun safety advice and to explain how genetic factors can increase the risk of skin cancer. For more information on how to keep your skin safe, please see Dr. Lessin’s recent skin cancer segment with the CW Philly’s Liz Keptner.
By now, most of us have read about studies linking tanning beds to melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers. The incidence of skin cancer has increased over the past 50 years as people spend more time outdoors and associate a tan with an attractive appearance. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 72 percent of those polled nationally believe that tanned skin looks good. But you don’t have to deliberately tan to be at risk for skin cancer. Whether you are outdoors to tan or are simply doing errands, you can burn your skin and increase your risk of skin cancer. Being aware of the risk and how to protect yourself can help.
First, try to avoid the sun when it is most intense, around mid-day. If this is not possible, wear sun-protective clothing such as long sleeves, a hat, and sunglasses, as well as a sun-block between 30-50 SPF on any exposed skin. Not all sun-blocks are created equal, so check the label to make sure it includes both UVA and UVB protection.
To address a common myth, while we all need Vitamin D to aid calcium absorption and build bone strength, it’s not necessary to sit in the sun to get it. Studies show that food and oral supplementation (vitamins) are the best sources for Vitamin D.
Be aware of how long you are out in the sun amid the distractions of daily life. What people refer to as a “base” tan will not prevent you from burning later, despite popular belief. It takes the average person only 15 minutes to burn, with fair complected individuals burning in as little as five minutes. Apply two coats of sun-block and keep reapplying a new coat every two hours or seek shade if you know you will be outside for long periods of time.
We also recommend getting a baseline skin examination and then doing a self-examination regularly throughout the year.
Individuals without a family history should see a dermatologist at least once as a young adult to see where they fit in terms of their risk and become educated. Then on your birthday, or when you’re trying on bathing suits for the season, take a look at your “birthday suit.”
Think of it this way: Our skin is like a garden, and a lot of things can grow as a result of skin exposure and aging. Most are not harmful, but we need to look for the weeds. Non-melanoma skin cancer usually presents itself as red, persistent bumps that slowly enlarge and then bleed. Check to see if there are any such bumps or suspicious looking moles that you do not remember, and follow up with your doctor if you have any concerns.
Finally, although external factors within our control greatly contribute to skin cancer, our genetic makeup may also come into play.
While 90 percent of melanomas are spontaneous, family history is involved in 10 percent of cases. About 3 percent of the population has an inherited gene mutation and the highest risk of developing melanoma in their lifetime. People with more than two first-degree relatives (parents, siblings, grandparents) who have been diagnosed with melanoma are considered to have a strong family history of skin cancer.
If you know of any family members who were diagnosed with melanoma, consider visiting the Fox Chase Risk Assessment Program to discuss your personal risk with a professional.
With just a few precautions, you can enjoy the summer and keep your skin safe.