According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other cancers combined. In recognition of the scope of this problem, the month of May has been officially designated as Skin Cancer Awareness Month.
But before we recoil at the mention of the C word, please take note that today, even though incidence rates are on the rise, skin cancer has become one of the more survivable forms of cancer. Having skin cancer is not the terrible prospect it once was, and that is why awareness is critical. Skin cancer, when it's caught early, is almost always curable.
Not all skin cancers are alike. There are two major classifications: nonmelanoma skin cancers and melanoma. "When people say 'skin cancer,' they usually mean basal cell cancer and squamous cell cancer," Dr. Larisa J. Geskin, director of the Comprehensive Skin Cancer Center at New-York Presbyterian and Columbia University Medical Center, tells U.S. News.
Basal cell cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S., with millions of cases diagnosed annually. Experts say the exact number is hard to chart because their incidence is not tracked in national cancer registries. What is known is that it is very rare for death to be caused by this type of cancer. Basal cell carcinoma accounts for about 80% of all skin cancers in the U.S. and is often curable with a simple surgical procedure.
Squamous cell carcinoma, which accounts for nearly 20% of all skin cancers diagnosed in the U.S., is somewhat more aggressive. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, death from this type of cancer is also quite rare. It is generally detected early, before it has metastasized, or spread, to nearby lymph nodes or distant organs.
This is in stark contrast to melanoma. Melanoma comes from cells that produce pigment called melanocytes and is a truly invasive and deadly skin cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, melanoma is expected to kill more than 7,200 Americans this year.
While it is true that people with darker skin have lower rates of melanoma because their cells produce more melanin, thus providing a natural protective layer, if people with darker skin develop melanoma, they have the same survival rates as people with lighter skin.
This leads us to a major fallacy held by most sun worshipers — that tanning provides protection from skin cancer. The opposite is true. Experts state that UV radiation exposure elevates skin cancer risk across the board. "Skin color that's produced by exposure to UV radiation isn't protective," says Dr. Geskin.
"Melanoma is the most deadly type of skin cancer, and we think unfortunately rates are still going up due to high levels of unprotected skin exposure and people are still using tanning beds," Dr. Elizabeth Hale, dermatologist and senior vice president of the Skin Cancer Foundation, tells CBS "This Morning." "But fortunately, for the first time the survival rate is improving due to advances in treatment of advanced melanoma."
It is also noted that overall health is a critical component of how the body responds to treatment. If you are in poor health or have other chronic conditions that are not being well managed, a simple case of skin cancer may have the opportunity to capitalize on those problems and spread.
What is a person to do to shield their skin and fend off skin cancer brought on by the sun's harmful rays, you may ask? Using sunscreen is only part of the answer.
According to a CNN report, sunscreens were originally approved as an over-the-counter solution to sunburn. They came in two types: one using various chemicals to filter the sun, the other using minerals such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. When using mineral-based sunscreens, they leave a telltale white coating. With many people not wanting to sport a white tint, the popularity of the chemical sunscreens soared.
"They were originally used in small quantities to prevent sunburn on vacation," said says David Andrews, senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group that publishes a yearly guide on sunscreens. Andrews goes on to say that although it is now recommended to apply sunscreen every day to large parts of your body, this practice is raising concerns.
Unease about such widespread use of chemical-based sunscreens has resulted in the inclusion of four chemicals — avobenzone, oxybenzone, ecamsule and octocrylene — in a group of a dozen that the FDA recently said needed to be researched by manufacturers before they could be considered "generally regarded as safe and effective." The results of this research could be awhile in coming. In the meantime, zinc oxide has reemerged as the gold standard for sunscreens. The mineral-based sunscreens also do not seem to harm the environment, and there are newer formulations on the market that minimize the whitening effect. But sunscreens are no longer seen as the be-all and end-all for the problem of skin cancer.
To address it more fully, the American Cancer Society, has adopted an Australian saying — slip, slop, slap and wrap.
"Slip on a long-sleeve shirt, slap on a wide-brimmed hat, slop on the sunscreen, and use UV-protective sunglasses that wrap around the eyes when out in the sun," says Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, acting medical director for the American Cancer Society.
The sun is the real enemy here. It is recommended to seek shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun is at its hottest. The rule of thumb: whenever your shadow is shorter than you are. Use protective clothing and do not forget sunglasses.
"It's seeking shade, using clothes and, when necessary, using sunscreen, but not using sunscreen to prolong your time in the sun," says Andrews.
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