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As the days get longer and the temperatures rise, we invariably spend more time outside in the sun. And while the great outdoors offers countless health benefits and lots of fun, it’s important to learn to spot any potential problems on our skin and to prioritize sun care. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S, and early detection can offer more treatment options with greater efficacy.
There are three main types of skin cancer and each can look different.
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Basal and squamous cell skin cancers are the most common, according to Jonathan Leventhal, MD, director of the Oncodermatology Clinic in the Melanoma Program at Smilow Cancer Hospital. “These cancers are most often found in areas exposed to the sun, such as the head, lips, ear, neck and arms, but they also can occur elsewhere.
“Patients with sunburns are at increased risk for developing skin cancer,” Dr. Leventhal added.
Warning signs of basal cell skin cancer can include a pink pimple-like growth on the skin, or a sore that doesn’t heal or bleeds. Squamous cells can be fast growing, painful to touch and look like a scaly, crusty or wart-like lesion. Dr. Leventhal said it’s important to treat these types of skin cancers promptly. “Squamous cell cancers – particularly on the lips and ears -- can spread to the lymph nodes,” he said.
Melanoma, the third type of skin cancer, is less common. It accounts for approximately 1 percent of skin cancers (although studies indicate that the risk of melanoma seems to be increasing in people under 40, especially women). It can be more serious because it is more likely to spread to other parts of the body if not caught in the early stage, according to Dr. Leventhal.
Melanomas most often appear on areas that have been exposed to the sun, “especially your back, legs, arms and face,” Dr. Leventhal said. However, melanomas can also occur in areas that don't receive much sun exposure, such as the soles of your feet, palms of your hands and fingernail beds. Signs of melanomas include a dark spot that changes in size, shape or color or starts to bleed or itch. Risk factors include having many moles or a family history of skin cancer or certain genetic syndromes. Exposure to tanning beds also increases the risk of melanoma.
Dr. Leventhal recommends regular skin self-exams to check for signs of skin cancer. “Look with intention,” he said. “Get a hand mirror and use it to look at the places you can’t readily see – like your back and the backs of your legs and neck.” If you have risk factors, schedule an annual skin check with your dermatologist.
Dr. Leventhal’s tips to protect your skin
- Seek shade.
- Wear protective clothing — including a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses with UV (ultraviolet) protection.
- Apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with SPF 50 or higher to all skin not covered by clothing. Reapply sunscreen every three hours.
- Being vigilant is the most important thing for your skin, said Dr. Bentz. “If you think you have reason to be worried – if you see something that isn’t healing or that looks unusual to you – call your doctor,” she said. “Is it new? Is it growing? Is it refusing to heal? Don’t wait too long. It can make a difference.”
What to do if you get a sunburn
- Cover your sunburned skin while it heals, especially when outside.
- Drink water to avoid dehydration.
- Leave blisters alone until they heal. Don’t peel skin — let it come off on its own.
- Take a cool bath or shower. Try a bath with oatmeal or baking soda to soothe sore skin.
- Take NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) for pain relief.
- Use topical cooling and hydrating gels, creams and ointments, including hydrocortisone cream or aloe vera gel.
When to seek medical care
- A fever over 103° F (39.4° C) with vomiting
- Signs of infection, such as blisters with pus or streaks
- Cold skin, dizziness or faintness
- Blisters on the face, hands or genitals
- Severe swelling of the affected area
- Worsening pain, headache, confusion, nausea, fever or chills
- Symptoms that get worse despite home treatments
- Eye pain or vision changes