Protect yourself from skin cancer

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 15, 2002

In the southern states, there are more cases of skin cancer than all other cancers combined. According to current estimates, 40 percent to 50 percent of Americans who live to age 65 will have skin cancer at least once. Fortunately, the most common types of skin cancer are easily treated if found early.

Basal cell and squamous cell are the most common forms of skin cancer. Melanoma is less common but is much more serious. It accounts for three-fourths of all skin cancer deaths.

Skin cancer is related to sun exposure. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, over time, increases the risk of skin cancer, so people who work primarily outdoors have a higher risk. Fair-skinned people who sunburn easily and people with a family history of melanoma have a higher risk of developing melanoma. However, it is wise for everyone to take steps to protect his/her skin.

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The National Cancer Institute recommends that you examine your skin monthly. Be alert for changes in the skin

a rough spot, a waxy-appearing place, a bump that won't heal

anything that looks different. Check everywhere; use a mirror if you need to. Get someone to carefully part your hair and check your scalp. Be aware of where your moles are and how they look. Look for changes in the size, shape or color of a mole. Note if you have any new moles. Ask a doctor to check any new moles or spots which have changed or which you are concerned about.

Protection from the sun is important. Choose a sunscreen with a sun protection factor(SPF) of 15 or higher. Apply sunscreen 20-30 minutes before going out in the sun, and reapply after swimming or perspiring heavily. Use sunscreen even on cloudy daysyou get about 80% as much UV exposure as on clear days. The UV rays are out there even in the winter time. Hats with wide brims help protect the ears and nose, common sites of basal and squamous cell skin cancers. Lightweight cotton long-sleeved shirts can also help protect the skin from the sun's damaging rays. Be especially careful to cover up when you're working outside in the heat of the day.