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Curb Your Risk of Skin Cancer

avoiding skin cancer, wearing a hat, sun screen

Many skin cancers are preventable if caught early.

Summer is nearly within reach, conjuring images of afternoons by the pool, sunny days on the beach, morning hikes and plenty of time to bask in the sun.

Before you do, be sure you’re taking steps to protect yourself from skin cancer.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the US and the rates continue to tick upward. One in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime. Each year, 5.4 cases of nonmelanoma skin cancer are treated in more than 3.3 million people—more than breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancer combined. According to the American Cancer Society, about 87,110 new melanomas will be diagnosed this year.

"This is an epidemic. I've diagnosed five or more skin cancers in one day—sometimes on the same patient."

"This is an epidemic," says Cedars-Sinai dermatologist Dr. Joyce N. Fox. "I've diagnosed five or more skin cancers in one day—sometimes on the same patient."

The good news is that many skin cancers are preventable and if caught early, treatable.

Here's how to manage your skin cancer risk:

Protect yourself in the sun

Take the advice of the Australians and slip, slop, slap:

  • Slip on a shirt,
  • slop on some sunscreen, and
  • slap on a hat.

Remember that sunscreen has to be reapplied regularly—at least every 2 hours—and should be used along with (not instead of) protective clothing. "Grab a floppy hat for the beach," Dr. Fox says. "It could save your life."

About 90% of nonmelanoma skin cancers are associated with exposure to the sun. Dermatologists recommend using sunscreen with an SPF—sun protection factor—of at least 30, which will block 97% of damaging UV rays.

Seek the shade

Stick to the shade as much as possible, especially between 10am and 4pm, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

In CS Magazines: How to Protect Your Skin

Ban the tan

The glow on your skin from the sun or a tanning bed may be seen as desirable, says Dr. Fox, but consider what actually is causing the bronze effect: "Scientifically, it's your body's attempt to heal itself from radiation." Ultraviolet rays break down the DNA of skin cells, which can lead to the mutations and rapid cell growth of cancer.

Know what skin cancer looks like and check for it

Telltale signs: a rough patch of skin, sores that won't heal and changing or unevenly pigmented moles. Check your freckles and moles using the "ABCDE" method. Be aware of:

  • Asymmetry: If you draw a line down the center of a mole, the halves will not match in cases of melanoma.
  • Border: Be aware of moles with uneven, crusty or notched edges.
  • Color: Healthy moles are uniform in color.
  • Diameter: Melanomas are usually—but not always—larger than the average pencil eraser.
  • Evolving: When a mole changes in size, color or shape, or starts bleeding or scabbing, see your doctor. These are changes to be concerned about.

"I love when patients come in and note that a particular growth has changed or is new," says Fox. "Their monitoring of their own and their partner's skin is part of their proactive care that gives me hope."

"If we get patients to protect from ultraviolet light damage and see their doctors sooner for unusual lesions, we can catch this early," Dr. Fox says.