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Skin Cancer: Protection and Early Detection Prove Key 

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, more than one million new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year, more than all other cancers combined, and one in five Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetimes. There are three types of skin cancer that account for almost 100 percent of these cases — basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and the deadliest of the three, melanoma. But with proper protection from the sun, most skin cancers are avoidable, and if detected early, curable. Basal cell carcinoma is actually the most common cancer of any kind, affecting more than one million people per year in the United States. Eighty percent of skin cancers are basal cell carcinoma, which means they develop in the basal cells — the skin cells in the lowest layer of the epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin. These tumors grow slowly and very rarely metastasize, or spread to other areas of the body.

About 16 percent of skin cancers, or about 200,000 cases per year, are squamous cell carcinoma. These cancers develop in the squamous cells of the upper layer of the epidermis and require early treatment to prevent spreading. Finally, melanoma, which accounts for four percent of skin cancers, starts in the melanocytes, the cells that give the skin its color. Melanoma is the most lethal skin cancer because it can rapidly metastasize to the lymphatic system and internal organs. It is estimated that 8,000 people die from melanoma every year.

It was once popular to have a "healthy" tan. No such thing exists. According to Dr. I. Ricardo Martinez, chief of dermatology at East Jefferson General Hospital, "When your skin darkens it is actually your cells trying to protect you from further damage from UV radiation. There is the common misperception that tanning beds are somehow safer. They aren't. Multiple studies have shown they can cause skin cancer."

Another common falsely held belief is that a "base" tan will protect your skin. Although darker skin offers more protection against sunburn and skin cancer than lighter skin, this is only for naturally darker skin, not skin that has been tanned or sunburned.

In addition to staying out of the sun and tanning beds, there are a number of steps you can take to protect yourself from sun damage throughout the year. Generously apply a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher whenever you are outside, even if it's cloudy. Stay out of the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun's rays are the strongest. Cover yourself with loose fitting, dark clothing, and wear a hat and sunglasses.

If you haven't always worn sunscreen around the clock and when you were young you thought baby oil was a great tan accelerator, early detection is your next line of defense. "Early detection is the key. Skin cancer is almost 100 percent curable if detected early," says Dr. Martinez.

It's important to examine your skin once a month to look for any new growths or changes in existing growths — including moles and other areas of discoloration. A good guide for detecting melanoma is to follow the ABCDs — asymmetry, border irregularity, color and diameter. Look for asymmetry, or one half of the lesion that doesn't match the other. Border irregularity means the edges are ragged or poorly defined. "Benign moles are usually a single shade of brown; melanoma lesions may have shades of brown, blue or black," says Dr. Martinez. Usually melanomas are more than 6 millimeters in diameter, or the size of a pencil eraser, although they can be smaller. Dr. Martinez stresses, "If you have any doubt about a mark on your body, see a dermatologist as soon as possible. It could be a matter of life and death."


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