Protect Your Skin

Couple on Beach Image

Leave it to statistics to take all the fun out of the sun! In the past 30 years, there have been more cases of skin cancer than all other types of cancer (including breast, prostate, colon and lung) combined, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

One in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer, and that goes up to nearly 50 percent for those over 65. The good news is that most skin cancers are not deadly and there have never been more ways to treat or prevent them.

The most common types of skin cancer are basal and squamous cell carcinomas, which occur near the skin's surface and look like scaly patches, or sores. Affecting more than 3 million people, these can lead to disfigurement if untreated, and in rare cases, turn deadly, but most of the time simple outpatient procedures can treat them.

Melanoma, which is typically black or dark brown, occurs deep within the skin, where sun-damaged cells can mutate and grow uncontrollably. Even one sunburn elevates your risk of melanoma and five sunburns are thought to double risk.

Melanoma is relatively rare: about 75,000 new cases are diagnosed each year and 9,000 of those are fatal. It can be effectively treated if caught early, but it has the potential to grow undetected and spread to other parts of the body.

Why Skin Cancer Prevention Is Key

The culprit in more than 90 percent of all non-melanoma skin cancers is the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays, which damage the surface of the skin. UV rays can also penetrate deep into the skin's layers, where they can trigger genetic mutations that can grow into melanoma tumors.

Any time your skin darkens due to sun exposure ("tans"), it means that your skin's DNA is being damaged. The best way to prevent damage is to apply sunscreen. But sunscreen isn't the only weapon in your arsenal. "Wear a hat that protects your ears and neck from the sun," advises Michael Postow, M.D., a fellow at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Dr. Postow also advises limiting sun exposure from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the summer.

If that's unrealistic, wear sun-protective clothing—long-sleeved shirts and pants with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 30 or more. Your beach umbrella also should be UPF 30 or more, and sunglasses should block 99 to 100 percent of UV rays to protect against ocular melanoma.

Catch Skin Cancer Early

Check your skin monthly, using a full body mirror when necessary, to look for abnormalities that may include: spots and sores that itch, crust or bleed; open sores that do not heal within three weeks; and moles or beauty marks that change color or texture, have an irregular shape, are bigger than the size of a pencil eraser or that appear for the first time after age 21.

The most effective way to remove suspicious growths, typically employed for treating recurring tumors and those around the facial area, is Mohs micrographic surgery. This is an outpatient procedure in which thin layers of skin are removed one by one and immediately viewed under a microscope until all tumor tissue is gone.

Growths may also be removed with scalpels, cauterized, frozen off or destroyed with radiation, lasers, strong lights or topical medications. In the rare instances when basal cell carcinoma spreads and can't be excised, the medication vismodegib (Erivedge) can be taken in capsule form.

New Hope for Melanomas

For advanced melanoma, there was almost no good news until recently. Interferon was the first-line treatment, but it wasn't very effective. Half of all melanoma patients have a genetic mutation (called BRAF) responsible for the growth of tumors. Doctors can now target these tumors with a medication called vemurafenib (Zelboraf), approved in 2011.

Another medication, ipilimumab (Yervoy), helps the body's immune system fight melanoma. "Some clinical trials have shown patients with metastatic melanoma responding well to ipilimumab for 10 years, which suggests they are essentially cured," says Antoni Ribas, M.D., professor of medicine at the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"Harnessing the immune system to fight cancer is no longer just the future," he enthuses. "It's the present."

An ordinary pain reliever may help too. A study at Stanford University School of Medicine found that aspirin reduced melanoma risk by 21 percent for older women who took it regularly. (Still, this finding does not yet suggest prescribing aspirin to ward off skin cancer.)

So, slather on the sunscreen, cover your skin and stay tuned for what experts predict are ever-more-promising and exciting breakthroughs in targeting this deadly disease.

From our sister publication REMEDY's Healthy Living Spring 2013

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 02 May 2013

Last Modified: 02 May 2013