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Worried About Skin Cancer? Here’s What to Look For

Some people look forward to summertime for the sunshine and the chance to achieve golden, bronzed skin. But as much as you may like the way tanned skin looks, a tan is actually damage to your skin.

“While the sun makes most of us feel good, it is not your skin’s friend,” said Dr. Michael Stierstorfer, a dermatologist on staff at Abington-Lansdale Hospital. “Burning and tanning both damage the skin.”

First, there’s a correlation between blistering sunburns early in life and melanoma later in life, according to Dr. Stierstorfer. Tanning in the sun increases the risk of basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers, as well as melanoma, the latter being the most dangerous skin cancer.

“Tanning also ages the skin, showing up later in life as wrinkles, blotchy, leathery skin and spots,” he said. “It can start really catching up with you in your 30s if you’ve had a lot of sun exposure before that…even freckles are a sign of sun damage.”

If you’re concerned about your risk of skin cancer or spent a lot of time out in the sun when you were younger, you can be proactive and check your skin for signs that may indicate cancer. In fact, everyone should do this.

Use the A, B, C, D, and E's of melanoma to catch it early

“Melanoma is the most dangerous skin cancer because it can readily spread throughout the body if not caught early,” Dr. Stierstorfer said. “They usually are some combination of dark brown and black flat spots or raised bumps, so it’s especially important to look out for dark spots that are new or changing.”

  • A good way to remember what to look for are the A, B, C, D, and E's:
  • A is asymmetry
  • B is border irregularity or poorly defined border
  • C is color variability
  • D is diameter greater than 6 millimeters, or the size of a pencil eraser
  • E is evolution or growth of a mole

“None of these in and of itself means the mole is melanoma, but these are the kind of things to look for,” he said. If you’re in your 30s or 40s, you should be especially aware of the marks on your skin – it’s the most common age range for melanoma, although Dr. Stierstorfer said it can occur at any age.

Be on the lookout for other skin cancers, too

Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers are the more common types of skin cancer and typically occur in older individuals since they tend to be linked with cumulative sun exposure over a lifetime.

“These cancers are usually red bumps that don’t go away or that crust over and bleed,” Dr. Stierstorfer said. “They’re usually quite manageable when small.”

However, if these skin cancers are neglected or occur in people with an impaired immune system, they can cause problems too, he said.

Set a monthly reminder for yourself

“Monthly self-exams are recommended to get familiar with what’s there and to have a chance of noticing something that’s changing,” Dr. Stierstorfer said. Once you become familiar with every inch of your skin, you’ll be more likely to spot something right away.

It’s important to check all of your skin

Melanoma most commonly develops on the back, likely because of its correlation with bad sunburns earlier in life, he said.

When it comes to basal cell and squamous cell cancers, they tend to occur where people get the most sun exposure, especially the face, ears, forearms and back of the hands.

“When checking yourself for signs of skin cancer, look at all of your skin,” Dr. Stierstorfer said. “Skin cancers can sometimes show up on parts of the body that don't get much or any sun, like under a toenail, in the underwear area or on the hair-bearing scalp.”

Melanoma can also develop on your palm, sole of your foot and, though rarely, in the mouth or on the retina. Squamous cell cancer can occur on lips too.

“If there's any doubt about a dark spot, it's good to have your doctor or a dermatologist check it,” he said.

You don’t need that much sun for vitamin D

Sun exposure for your skin is an important source of vitamin D, which you especially need for your bone health. If you’re torn between protecting your skin and ensuring your body has enough vitamin D, don’t worry – you don’t need much time out in the sun.

“It takes just five minutes of outdoor sun without sunscreen or 20 minutes with SPF 15 sunscreen to get as much vitamin D as you need in a day,” Dr. Stierstorfer said. You can also get all the vitamin D you need through your diet and vitamin supplements.

Bottom line, use common sense

If you enjoy spending time outdoors, you don’t have to limit that due to fear of skin cancer.

“Just take appropriate precautions and your skin will be a lot healthier and you’ll look a lot younger down the road,” Dr. Stierstorfer said.

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