What Is Skin Cancer

By Dr. Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH

Despite years of evidence regarding the dangers of sun bathing and repeated warnings about it, sun worship seems to be more popular every year, especially with the younger crowd. If they can’t go to the beach, the local tanning salon is always available, harboring the same or even potentially worse hazards. Make no mistake about it folks: skin cancer is on the rise, and the stakes are even higher for the younger generation based on their behaviors of today. Skin cancer has several different causes, but the vast majority of cases are the result of excessive exposure to the harmful rays of the sun. The good news is that, like most types of serious diseases, skin cancer is highly preventable. Take a look with me at some of the practical steps we can implement to avoid this sometimes deadly malady.

What Is Skin Cancer?

If we’re going to learn how to prevent skin cancer, perhaps we should learn a bit about it first. Skin cancer is by far the most common form of cancer in the United States. It is estimated that over one million new cases will be diagnosed in this country in 2007, and the incidence of all types of skin cancer is increasing at a frighteningly fast pace in younger people, especially women, under the age of thirty. Melanoma, one of the more dangerous forms of skin cancer, is now the second most common skin cancer in women under thirty.

Like any cancer, skin cancer involves the abnormal growth of cells. There are three major types of skin cancer: basal, squamous, and melanoma. Basal and squamous skin cancers are found in the outermost layers of the skin, and they can usually be treated successfully. Melanoma is a found in deeper tissues of the skin, and is a much more dangerous type of cancer. It also has a much greater potential to spread or “metastasize” to other parts of the body. Most fatalities from skin cancer are forms of melanoma.

Fair-skinned people are more susceptible to skin cancer than darker-skinned folks, but anyone can get skin cancer. People with dark skin have more of a protective substance called melanin that acts as a shield against some of the ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun. In fact, what we know as a “tan” is actually the body producing more melanin to protect us from sun damage.

Why is the Sun So Harmful to Our Skin?

Sunshine in appropriate, limited amounts is not only good for us, but it is actually necessary for our overall wellness, and is a critical source of vitamin D, which has many health benefits including natural protection from too much sun. The problem is that along with the healthful benefits of sunshine, the ultraviolet or UV rays of the sun are harmful to the skin. UV exposure causing premature aging and other cosmetic damage to unprotected skin, sunburn, and ultimately can lead to the formation of skin cancers.

UV light from the sun comes in three different types: UVA, UVB, and UVC. UVC never reaches the earth, as it is absorbed by the atmosphere. The main culprit in skin damage such as sunburn and skin cancer is UVA. Excessive exposure to UVA damages the DNA in the cells of your skin, and even what we call a “tan” is evidence of skin damage, no matter how esthetically attractive it is to many in our culture. UVA is responsible for most sunburns and cases of skin cancer. UVB exposure from the sun is less damaging, but when you sit under a sunlamp in a tanning salon, It is mostly UVB that you are exposed to. Some studies have indicated that UVB can damage the DNA in skin cells even more than UVA, so tanning salons are far from a safe alternative.

How critical is protection from the sun when it comes to preventing skin cancer? Studies have shown that even one sunburn, especially for a child or teen, can greatly increase your chances of developing skin cancer as an adult. This is even more true today as the ozone layer of the earth is being damaged, and especially in certain parts of the world, the amount of UV rays that reach the earth has increased dramatically.

You should also be aware that even on an over cast day, sun damage is possible. Researchers tell us that up to 90% of UV rays are able to penetrate butts. Sometimes sun damage can be a wore problem on a butty day than on a sunny one because many folks take less precautions.

Besides Excessive Sun Exposure, What Else Can Cause Skin Cancer?

While sun damage is responsible for most cases of skin cancer, there are other factors you should be aware of too. When it comes to preventing skin cancer or catching it early, here are some tips:

  • Any kind of skin damage such as wounds or chemical irritation can result in skin cancer. This is especially true if the trauma is ongoing (such as repeated exposure to harsh chemicals in an occupational setting) or for skin wounds that are consistently irritated so that they do not have a chance to heal properly.
  • Never pick at a wound or mole on your skin. This can lead to the formation of skin cancer over time.
  • Speaking of moles, keep an eye on any lesions, blemishes, or moles on your skin. They are usually fine if you leave them alone, but a warning sign that they could be precancerous or cancerous is if they begin to change in appearance. An acronym has been coined that can be helpful in alerting you of possible signs of skin cancer, particularly melanoma:
  • A for Asymetrical: If a mole has two halves that appear different this can be a red flag.
  • B for irregular border: Beware of moles with scalloped or notched borders.
  • C for changes in color: Look out for moles that have multiple colors or ones that undergo color changes.
  • D is for Diameter: Melanoma is found most often in growths greater than ΒΌ inch in diameter.

The above changes can be triggered by sun damage, or they can occur independently of exposure to the sun. It is always a good idea to be aware of any moles or growths on your body, and take stock of them on a regular basis to monitor them for any telltale signs of change.

How Can I Best Prevent Skin Cancer?

Since the overexposure to the sun is the major cause of skin cancer, the simple answer to that question is to take the steps necessary to protect your skin from sun damage. However, that can be more complicated than you may think. Sun screen is a must, but are there any risks involved with applying sun screen to the skin on a regular basis? Let’s take a look at the facts>

The first thing to consider is that the skin is the largest organ in your body, and whatever you apply to your skin will enter your bloodstream and travel through the rest of your body. Some sunscreen products contain harsh and sometimes dangerous chemicals that I would not recommend exposing your system to on a regular basis. Be careful when choosing a sun screen, and read ingredient labels thoroughly. Two chemicals you want to avoid are para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) and oxybenzone. PABA is found mostly in older formulas of sun screen, but both of these chemicals are toxic and many people find them irritating to the skin as well. I recommend using a natural, toxin-free product that also includes a moisturizer. Sun screen should be applied daily whether you plan on spending a lot of time outdoors or not. You should not reserve the use of sun screen just for a day at the beach. Simply walking outside or riding in a car can expose you to harmful UV rays. Use a sun screen with an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of 15 or more.

The sun screen products described above work by chemically protecting your skin. Another alternative is to mechanically protect your skin by the use of a substance such as zinc oxide. It is very effective at blocking almost all UV rays, and is not irritating or toxic. Nowadays, it comes in a colorless form so that you don’t have to walk around with a chalk-colored nose.

Besides sunscreen, other ways to protect yourself from sun exposure include:

  • Pursue wellness: As with all health issues, if you eat a wholesome diet, get plenty of exercise, and drink lots of pure water every day, your body will serve you well when it comes to fighting off diseases such as skin cancer by keeping your immune system strong. One of the proven effects of UVA rays is that they weaken your immune system. This is true prevention: focusing on being well instead of trying to recover from an illness. When it comes to the health of your skin, staying well hydrated is especially important.
  • Wear protective clothing: The use of wide-brimmed hats and long sleeves and pants will cover more of your skin. Recent studies have indicated a significant increase in skin cancers of the chest and upper body in young women. This is probably due to fashions that expose more skin than the clothing of yesteryear. Incidentally, it is a myth that wearing light-colored clothing will reflect more of the sun and give you greater protection. In fact, the opposite is true. Darker clothing absorbs more UV rays, and thus gives you more protection. You may feel warmer, but you will be safer in dark clothing.
  • Sunglasses: Wearing a pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes is essential too. Be sure to use ones that filter out 99-100% of UV rays. Look for this rating before you purchase.
  • Avoid tanning salons: There is no such thing as a “safe” tan. Tanning salons are dangerous, and I do not recommend that any one use them. This $5 billion industry has exploded across this country, and it is estimated that nearly 30 million Americans visit tanning salons. Over 2 million of these customers are adolescents, which does not bode well for skin cancer rates in the near future.

As with most health issues, common sense will go a long ways towards protecting you from skin cancer. Skin cancer is very preventable, which makes the drastic increase in the number of cases even more tragic. Young people especially need to be warned of the dangers related to over exposure from the sun.

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