Your skin is the largest organ on your body and forms the first line of defense against the elements. That's why July marks the beginning of UV Safety month, a month dedicated to spreading awareness about UV radiation — as well as skin cancer awareness.
What is UV Radiation?
Ultraviolet radiation, or UV radiation, is a form of radiation naturally emitted by the sun. It can be emitted artificially as well — if you've ever used a tanning bed, then you've exposed yourself to artificial UV rays. UV rays are a natural source of vitamin D, but that doesn't make them harmless. Overexposure to UV radiation can cause sunburn, potentially blinding eye diseases, premature aging, and worst of all, skin cancer.
Recognizing Skin Cancer
Skin cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer — in fact, it's currently estimated that one in five Americans will develop it at some point in their lifetime. It occurs when skin cells grow at an abnormal rate. This causes spots, bumps, or lesions on the skin that are often oddly colored, grow rapidly, have undefined borders, or bleed.
Most skin cancers initially develop at the surface level. If left untreated, however, it can take root and spread into the surrounding tissues. Cancerous cells can also break away and travel to different parts of the body, where they develop into new tumors. At this point, the cancer has gone from skin-deep to life-threatening.
While all skin cancers affect the skin in some way, they may manifest differently. Note that all forms of skin cancer will worsen and can become fatal if left untreated. Skin cancer can also affect people regardless of skin tone — those with darker skin tend to develop it more in places that aren't exposed to the sun, but they aren't immune.
Basal Cell Carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer. It usually occurs in areas constantly exposed to the sun, such as the face and neck. It can appear as a waxy bump, a sore that repeatedly bleeds and scabs, or a fleshy or brown lesion.
Melanoma can occur on any part of the body, regardless of sun exposure. The most common areas are the face and trunk for men and the lower legs for women. For those with darker skin, it occurs more commonly on the palms, soles, or under the fingernails and toenails. Melanoma can manifest as a large brown spot with irregular borders; or as lesions that itch, burn, and come in a variety of colors, such as red, white, pink, blue, or blue-black.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Like basal cell, squamous cell carcinoma usually occurs in areas that receive constant sun exposure. They tend to develop as firm nodules or as scaly, crusted lesions with a flat surface.
Nonmelanoma Skin Cancer
In addition to the three mentioned above, there are several uncommon skin cancer varieties. These forms can develop on the blood vessels, around or in hair follicles, or in the oil glands.
Not every suspicious skin lesion is cancerous. Sunspots are dark spots that develop on the skin with sun exposure or age. They are smooth, flat spots with clearly defined borders, and develop in areas that are constantly exposed to the sun, such as the face, hands, and arms. While these spots are harmless, they can develop into skin cancer later, so it's good to keep track of their size, shape, and color.
Practicing UV Safety
While there's no guaranteed method for preventing skin cancer, there are several steps you can take to lower the risk:
Avoid prolonged UV exposure
As UV radiation is one of the most common contributing factors, limiting your UV exposure is an important step in skin cancer prevention. Avoid staying in the sun for too long, especially during midday in the spring and summer months, and avoid tanning beds. If you're dead set on getting a tan, use a tanning spray or lotion instead.
Wear protective clothing
It's impossible to avoid the sun completely in the spring and summer, so be sure to dress appropriately when you do go outside. Cover your arms and legs, protect your eyes with sunglasses, and wear a wide-brimmed hat to keep the sun from your face and neck. Don't overdo it, though — avoiding the sun is important, but so is avoiding heat stroke.
Sunscreen is specially designed to protect your skin from UV radiation. Wear it whenever you're going to be in the sun for more than a short period of time, even if you can't see the sun — clouds may block light, but up to 80% of UV rays can still break through. Make sure the sunscreen is a minimum SPF 15.
Check your skin
Skin cancer becomes truly dangerous once it spreads to the lymph nodes and organs; if caught and treated in the early stages, the five-year survival rate is 99%. Keep an eye out for any new spots or moles on your skin, especially if they're oddly colored, painful, have irregular borders, or are larger than the head of a pencil eraser. If you have any concerns, get a professional opinion.
Protect Your Skin with Arnot Health
UV radiation is the most common contributing factor to skin cancer. Whether you catch it at the first lesion or after it's spread, it's critical that you receive treatment you can count on.
If you or someone you know is suffering from skin cancer in any stage, contact Arnot Health. We provide the latest medical treatments for a wide variety of cancers, and our dermatology department is trained to treat both developed skin cancer and precancerous skin growths. Our specialists offer both medical treatment and patient support, ensuring you or your loved one will be treated with care during a difficult time in their life. Don't delay — find a provider near you and schedule your first appointment today.