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Skin Cancer: Learn the Facts So You Don't Get Burned this Summer

May 8, 2003

Skin Cancer: Learn the Facts So You Don't Get Burned this Summer

About 50 percent of all people who live to age 65 years will develop at least one form of skin cancer.

Released: 2003/05/08

HOUSTON, TX - Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer occurring in the United States. It is also the most rapidly increasing cancer.

For the past thirty years, skin cancers have been increasing in incidence by about three percent each year. One person out of every five people in the U.S. will develop skin cancer sometime during his or her life. It is estimated that about 50 percent of all people who live to age 65 years will develop at least one form of skin cancer.

The good news is that skin cancer can be prevented, or if caught early, is highly curable. In fact, if detected early, skin cancer is almost 100 percent curable.

Skin cancer can be divided into two major types: nonmelanoma and melanoma skin cancer. Malignant melanoma (MM) is the more deadly of the two.

The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be more than one million people diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancers in the year 2003. Approximately 54,200 people will be diagnosed with malignant melanoma.

Even though malignant melanoma is diagnosed far less often, MM skin cancers will take more lives than any other type of skin cancer, causing about 7,600 deaths per year. That represents about one malignant melanoma death every hour. Malignant melanoma is responsible for 80 percent of all skin cancer deaths.

The primary cause of all types of skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV) - the sun. It is easy to get a sunburn in Texas because of the state's geographic location, mild climate, and the many opportunities to work and play out of doors. Reflections of the sun's rays off water, sand, or snow can double your ultraviolet radiation exposure.

Clouds don't block out UV rays. When the weather is cloudy, cool, and breezy, we may not become hot or realize the amount of UV exposure until after we have developed a sunburn.

Studies suggest that heavy sunlight exposure in the first few decades of life may be of the greatest importance in determining a person's risk for skin cancer. A blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence doubles the risk of developing a skin cancer. It is estimated that by the time someone reaches the age of 18 they have already obtained 80 percent of their lifetime UV light exposure.

Besides avoiding the sun, early diagnosis and treatment are the next best prevention option. Make it a habit to check your skin for abnormalities and changes. Look at each of your moles and evaluate them using the following test:

  1. is Asymmetry. When the lesion is divided into halves, if the right half does NOT look like the left half, it is asymmetrical in shape.
  2. stands for Border. Moles that have irregular or poorly defined borders should be reported. The borders appear notched or seem to fade or "stream out" onto the surrounding skin.
  3. stands for Color. Is the color of the mole varied? Does the mole have tan, brown, black, blue, red, or white areas?
  4. refers to Diameter. Is the mole larger than six millimeters in diameter (the size of a pencil eraser)? Although six mm is used as a general guideline for evaluating growth of a mole, any mole that is asymmetrical, has an irregular border, has color variations, and is changing should be evaluated by your VA health care provider - even if it is less than six millimeters in diameter. A positive finding of any of the ABCDs may indicate the mole is a malignant melanoma.

MM can develop anywhere on your skin, so wear appropriate protective attire including long sleeves and hats, avoid working in the sun if possible, use sunscreens, and do regular self-examinations. Protect your eyes from the harmful ultraviolet rays by using gray or brown lenses that offer both UVA and UVB protection.

A cancer-related checkup including skin exam is recommended every three years for persons between the age of 20 to 40 years, and every year age 40 and older.

Take charge of your skin. Get regular checkups and take precautions when you are out in the sun. Remember to "Slip, Slap, and Slop." Slip on a long sleeve shirt, Slap on a hat, and Slop on some sunscreen to protect your skin from the sun's damaging rays!

by Pam Willson, PhD, RN, FNP-C, HVAMC Associate Chief of Nursing Research

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Point of Contact: VHAHOU Public Affairs

04/21/04 08:25