May is skin cancer awareness month, so I want to remind people of things we can do to keep our skin healthy and how to recognize a potential early skin cancer.

Most of the sunlight damage to our skin happens before age 15. It’s important that we make our children wear sunscreen every day. For those of us past the teenage years, we still need to wear sunscreen every time we go outdoors. If your bottle of sunscreen is more than a year old, it’s time to throw it out and get a new one. Buy the stuff with an SPF greater than 15; buying sunscreen with numbers in the 30s or 40s is probably not necessary. Recall that even waterproof sunscreens don’t last all day, so if you are going to be outside for several hours, reapply the stuff every 3 or 4 hours.

Skin cells change from normal to pre-cancer to cancer cells over time. Over 1 million people in the United States will develop skin cancer this year, so we need to know what to watch for. Just like every other type of cancer I see, finding it early is better than letting it spread!

The most common type of skin cancer is called a basal cell cancer. A basal cell is from the basement or basal layer of our skin. Recall from my articles last year that these cancers look like little volcanoes with pearly, raised edges. They bleed easily. They are most commonly found on our face and neck areas.

The second most common type of skin cancer is called a squamous cell cancer. These are also usually due to excess sun exposure. They look like scaly, rough areas or even white patches on our lower lips. Sometimes, these develop in old scars. 

The least common type of skin cancer but the most worrisome is called a melanoma. A melanocyte is the cell that produces pigment in our skin. The more you tan, the more the melanocytes have to work and the more likely you are to get a melanoma. (Think about that the next time you see an ad on the television for a tanning bed.) We try to recognize melanomas by using the ABCDE system:

A Appearance- if a mole changes in looks, get it checked.

B Border- if a mole has a funny shape or an irregular border it needs to be checked

C Color- any changes in color or variations in color need to be checked

D Diameter- any funny looking spot bigger than a pencil eraser needs to be checked.

E Elevation “if a mole sticks up above the skin level where it had been flat before, it needs to be checked.

If you have a mole that fits any of the above criteria or just a sore that won’t heal, have it checked. Biopsies can often be done in the doctor’s office and then we know for certain if you have a skin cancer.

Just like with any other medical problem, prevention is better than treatment after the problem exists. The best way to prevent skin cancers is to wear sunscreen, a hat and clothing that covers your skin. It’s not a coincidence that guys get more skin cancers on their faces and arms and ladies get more skin cancers on their legs. Take a minute to think about why people who drive a lot get more skin cancers on their left arms than on their right arms.

I know you have seen articles that say we need sunlight exposure for vitamin D metabolism and that we need Vitamin D to keep our bones strong. It is true that people who live further north, like in the Boston area, have declining Vitamin D levels in the winter months.

I’m not sure that people in Ada have that problem. Anyway, adults after age 50 need 400 IU of Vitamin D daily; after age 70 we need 600 IU daily. Rather than risk getting skin cancer, it’s much simpler to just take calcium with Vitamin D in pill form.

Don’t use the “strong bones” argument to give yourself skin cancer

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