Protecting yourself from skin cancer is not as difficult as you may think. Many types of cancer are on the rise today, and skin cancer is one of the worst offenders. Perhaps it’s a factor of the changing ozone layer that makes the sun more harmful these days, the fact that we are consuming unhealthy oils and foods, or just indifference on the part of many, whether it is due to ignorance or apathy, regarding irresponsible exposure to the sun. I cringe when I see sun-worshippers baking themselves in the scorching heat, simply for fashion. Add to that the over-use of tanning salons today, and it does not bode well for skin cancer rates to take a downturn anytime soon. What can I do to protect myself and my family? Let’s start with a bit of education about skin cancer.
What is Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer, like any cancer, involves the abnormal growth of cells. There are three main types of skin cancer, and they all affect different types of skin cells. Basal and squamous cell carcinomas are two types of skin cancer found in the outer layers of the skin. They are generally slow-growing and can usually be successfully treated, especially if discovered early. The third kind of skin cancer is called melanoma, and it is found much deeper in the tissues and has a greater propensity for spreading to other parts of the body. It is a much more dangerous type of skin cancer and is the culprit in most fatal cases of skin cancer. There are about 800,000 incidences of skin cancer in the United States annually, and the numbers are climbing yearly. Multiple factors put one at greater risk, but overexposure to the sun is by far the number one cause of skin cancer. Most carcinomas appear on parts of the body that receive the most direct sunlight, such as the scalp, ears, face, arms, hands, and shoulders. However, skin cancer can also form on body parts that generally don’t get much sun — such as the genitals, between the toes, the palms of the hand, and the soles of the feet.
Perhaps a little knowledge about the skin’s structure, the body’s largest organ, will help us understand skin cancer better. The skin comprises three primary layers: the epidermis (outermost), the dermis, and the subcutis (innermost). The epidermis is a protective layer that continually sheds old, dead skin cells and replaces them with new ones. Next is the layer of squamous cells, and on the bottom of the epidermis are the basal skin cells. The epidermis acts as a protective shield by producing a substance called melanin, which plays several roles. First, it gives skin its normal color. Second, when the skin is exposed to the sun, the amount of melanin increases, producing more pigment to better protect the skin, which is why you get a “tan” when you are out in the sun. People with darker skin naturally have more melanin and are therefore more protected than fair-skinned folks. The entire process of skin rejuvenation, the shedding of the old cells and the production of new ones, is controlled by DNA. If an abnormality develops, the body will start producing skin cells that grow out of control, and a mass of cancerous cells called a tumor may arise.
- Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer. It is involved with about nine out of ten cases. It is also the most easily treated and unlikely type to spread to other body parts (metastasize). It is characterized by:
- A pearly or waxy-appearing lump that’s usually found on the ears, face, or neck.
- A flat brown or flesh-colored mark on the chest or back.
- Squamous cell carcinoma is also very treatable when caught early. It is not likely to spread, but the chance is greater than for basal cells. Squamous cell typically appears as:
- A nodule on the face, lips, ears, arms, or hands – usually firm and reddish in color.
- A flat lesion that often appears crusted or scaly. Most often found in the same locations as basal, except that it will rarely form on the lips.
- Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. It can form from a wound or existing lesion or in otherwise healthy appearing skin. Often melanoma will form at the site of basal or squamous cancers if left untreated. It can quickly metastasize, which is what makes it so dangerous. It often spreads through the blood or lymph system. Melanoma can appear in many different forms. The following acronym (ABCD) can help to spot it:
A for Asymmetrical: Look for moles or lesions with different appearing halves.
B for irregular border: Any moles with a scalloped or notched appearance.
C for changes in color: Moles or growths that are uneven in color or multicolored.
D for diameter: Melanoma often appears in growths greater than ¼ inch in diameter.Also, be aware of melanoma that appears in the form of dark lesions in the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose, anus, or vagina; or on the fingertips, toes, palms, or soles of the feet.
What Causes Skin Cancer?
Any damage to the skin can alter the DNA and result in the growth of cancerous skin cells. As mentioned previously, excessive exposure to the sun or tanning lamps are the main culprits. However, other skin damage, such as wounds or chemical irritation, can also lead to skin cancer in some instances. But the facts are that most skin cancer is caused by too much UV (ultraviolet) light from the sun.
UV light is found in three varieties: Ultraviolet A (UVA), ultraviolet B (UVB), and ultraviolet C (you guessed it, UVC). UVC is not a factor, as the ozone absorbs it in the atmosphere and never reaches the earth. UVA is a significant player in sunburn and DNA damage and increased risk for skin cancer. It was thought for many years that UVB had little to do with the risk for skin cancer. However, times have changed, and while UVA is the main villain in sunlight, the use of tanning lamps and beds exposes patrons to dangerously high levels of UVB. In fact, studies have shown that short, intense exposure to UVB in a tanning salon damages the DNA in skin cells more than sunburn does.
Other risk factors for skin cancer include:
- Fair skin: People with light skin and light-colored eyes have a greater incidence of skin cancer than folks with darker skin. If you have freckles, your risk is greater as well.
- Past sunburns: Even one severe sunburn as a young person can significantly increase your chance of developing skin cancer as an adult. Don’t do it. A “tan” is not worth the risk.
- Excessive time in the sun: This can be a factor that affects folks in certain occupations. Farmers are one good example.
- Age: While skin cancer can afflict anyone at any age, most cases are found in individuals over 40.
- Climate: If you live in a very sunny part of the world or at a high altitude, you are also at increased risk for skin cancer.
- History of skin cancer: If you personally have had skin cancer in the past, be especially careful because your risk for another bout with it is increased. The same is true if it runs in your family. There is even a condition called familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM), whereby people inherit a pattern of atypical moles and are at extremely high risk for skin cancer.
- Unusual moles: When certain kinds of moles are present on your skin, your cancer risk may also increase. They are technically known as dysplastic nevi. Beware of unusually large moles that may look irregular. Make a note of any changes in these moles.
- Pre-cancerous skin lesions: If you are diagnosed with skin lesions called actinic keratoses, keep a very close eye on these pre-cancerous growths. Take special precautions to prevent undue exposure to the sun.
- Compromised immune system: If you have an illness that has weakened your immune system, such as diabetes or AIDS, your skin cancer risk increases. You can also experience a weakening of your immune system due to specific treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
What Treatments Are Available for Skin Cancer?
Prevention – Non-Toxic Sunscreen
As far as prevention goes, it is mostly common sense. Staying away from extreme sun exposure, especially during the peak hours of 10 am-4 pm, will go a long way in reducing your risk for skin cancer. Sunscreen is always recommended, but I would only recommend using a natural and non-toxic ingredient, sunscreen. Many products expose you to toxic chemicals that can weaken or damage your skin. If you must be in the sun, be sure to wear adequate protective clothing.
While the best treatment is prevention, if you already have developed skin cancer, you want to also focus on early detection. The sooner you catch it, the greater the chance of stopping it. Surgery can be successful with most cases of basal and squamous carcinomas. It is often performed on an outpatient basis, usually with local anesthesia. Many different types of procedures can be used. If you go the surgical route, talk it over with your doctor to ensure you are informed of all your options. I would research any procedure independently and not take the doctor’s word for it. Your life, not the doctors, may be at stake if the cancer is not dealt with effectively.
Chemotherapy and Radiation
Sometimes chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be suggested for more serious cases, especially with melanoma. This is a decision that must not be taken lightly. Some people choose a natural, alternative route when dealing with cancer. Some decide to use chemo or radiation and back it up with a nutrition and supplemental support regimen that can help protect the body from the serious side effects of the chemo/radiation. It is a very personal choice that nobody should make for you. Try to research and educate yourself as much as possible before making your decision. Find out what has worked and has not worked for others in your specific situation and what future side effects to expect.
A 2018 study, The Protective Role of Astaxanthin for UV-Induced Skin Deterioration in Healthy People—A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial, concluded that the astaxanthin group showed increased MED (the minimal erythema dose ) compared with placebo. In addition, the astaxanthin group had a reduced loss of skin moisture in the irradiated area compared with the placebo. Subjective skin conditions for “improvement of rough skin” and “texture” in non-irradiated areas were significantly improved by astaxanthin. Astaxanthin seems protective against UV-induced skin deterioration and helps maintain healthy skin in healthy people.
Consuming a very healthy diet that includes healthy and non-rancid oils will not only help your immune system but will also affect the way that your skin protects itself. Dr. Johanna Budwig, a top European cancer researcher, suggested that when the body has the right balance of healthy oils and proteins, it has a magnetic field that attracts the photons in sunlight and thus is open to the healing effects of the sun. Healthy oils would include organic flaxseed oil (most recommended by Dr. Budwig), hemp seed oil, coconut oil, and cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil. According to Dr. Budwig: “Scientifically, these oils are even known as electron-rich essential highly unsaturated fats. But, when people began to treat fats to make them keep longer, no one stopped to consider the consequences of this decision for the existence and higher development of the human race. These vitally important amounts of electrons, with their continual movement and the wonderful reaction of light, were destroyed. Dr. Budwig mentioned that doctors tell patients and cancer patients to avoid the sun as they cannot tolerate it, and that is correct. She says once these patients start on her oil-protein nutritional advice for two or three days which means they have been getting sufficient amounts of essential fats, they can then tolerate the sun very well. She said the patients then tell her how much better they feel as their vitality and vigor are re-stimulated.” When it comes to skin cancer or any other wellness issue for that matter, you are the one that should be aware and proactive. Know your body, and monitor yourself for any unusual or unexpected changes. This is the most effective way to stay well and maintain the gift of health.” Dr. Johanna Budwig.
“The metabolism of fat has such as extensive effect on the vital functions and every individual organ—quite simply on life itself, including the generation of new life, that the lack of unsaturated fats is no longer acceptable. Well-meaning methods of treating fats to give them a longer shelf-life, but which destroy their fatty substances, must be changed. The metabolism of fat affects each and every organ. Any patient with liver and gall bladder problems is fully aware of how fat makes him feel. Medical treatment prescribes the eating of fewer amounts of fat because it has been observed that the patient cannot digest it. However, if he is given beneficial fats within the definitions, I’ve just summarized, that is, highly unsaturated fats, then he has no digestive trouble at all. It is best to use threefold unsaturated fats prepared from flax seed oil, together with the substance which easily dissolves them, and that is cottage cheese. Various highly trained and educated individuals are dismayed and irritated by the fact that serious medical conditions can be cured by cottage cheese and flax seed oil. The diseased organ is in no way harmed by these substances. There is only one other important point to be observed. The usual methods of preserving foods are based on the addition of ‘oxidation’—inhibiting substances which render inert that process itself, the combustible process in the foods. The majority of preservatives can be labeled as respiratory poisons in that their effect is to block the combustion of fat—its continued interaction with oxygen. When, in such a situation as described, we supply respiratory activating fats and prevent the ingestion of preservatives, which are respiratory poisons, then great numbers of patients who have been given up as hopeless cases by many clinics will recover their health.” – Dr. Johanna Budwig – Flax Oil as a True Aid Against Arthritis, Heart Infarction, Cancer and other Diseases
Taking preventative measures is always best. During the spring and summer months, most of us find ourselves more involved with outside activities for longer periods of time. When out in the sun for more than 15-30 minutes, it’s extremely important to safely and effectively protect your skin. Finding a non-toxic and safe sunscreen that offers adequate protection is not always easy, but they are out there. Be aware that some “natural and safe” sunscreens still incorporate questionable ingredients. Read How To Choose a Safe Sunscreen. The good news is that more and more non-toxic and safe sunscreens hit the market yearly — always do your own research is my mantra for sunscreens.