FYI: Skin Cancer

In 1991, physicians will diagnose approximately 600,000 cases of skin cancer. Although most will be highly curable basal cell or squamous cell cancers, there will be approximately 32,000 cases diagnosed as malignant melanoma. The number of skin cancer cases is increasing in the United States by about 4% per year. Melanoma develops 10 to 20 years after sun damage to the skin, so the current cases are the result of excessive sun exposure from the 1960s and 1970s.

Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. It is expected to kill approximately 6,500 Americans in 1991. Although melanoma is by far the most lethal, other forms of skin cancer will cause an additional 2,500 deaths this year.

Most Americans are aware of the connection between excessive sun exposure and increased risk for all types of skin cancer. Evidence suggests that certain factors may increase an individual's risk for skin cancer, specifically melanoma. Melanoma frequently starts as a small mole-like growth which gradually changes in size and color. These growths often become ulcerated, and bleed easily upon slight injury. Possessing one or two of the following risk factors could increase an individual's risk for melanoma by three to four times.

These risk factors include:

- A history of excessive exposure to the sun

- Fair complexion, blonde or red hair

- Marked freckling of the upper back

- A history of other family members with melanoma

- A history of three or more blistering sunburns as a teenager

Skin cancers, including melanoma, are highly curable when treated in the early stages. Therefore, early detection is important. Adults can easily learn to examine their skin and recognize the warning signs of skin cancer. Self-examination should be practiced once a month, and any suspicious lesions should immediately be evaluated by a physician.

The warning signs of basal or squamous cell skin cancer are:

- Pale, waxlike, pearly nodule, and/or

- Red scaly, sharply outlined patch

- Any sudden or progressive change in a mole's appearance

The warning signs for melanoma follow a simple rule, known as the ABCD rule.

A is for symmetry: one half the mole does not match the other half.

B is for border irregularity: edges of the mole are ragged, notched or blurred.

C is for color: the pigmentation is uneven or changes.

D is for diameter: any mole larger than six millimeters.

The ABCD rule is a general guideline. But any unusual skin condition, especially a sudden or progressive change in a mole's appearance should be checked by a physician. Also, be alert to scaliness, oozing, or bleeding of skin bumps and nodules, as well as pain, itchiness, tenderness, or changes in sensation.

Developing healthy habits of protecting yourself against excessive sun exposure today will go a long way towards preventing skin cancer in the future. You can significantly reduce your risk of skin cancer by taking the following steps toward prevention:

- Avoid the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the ultraviolet rays are the strongest.

- If you do go outside between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., wear protective clothing (hat, sunglasses, light colored, opaque clothing), and a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or greater.

Article copyright American Council on Science and Health, Inc.

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By Jean Carey

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