Enjoy the Sun, But Protect Yourself

Protect yourself from skin cancer and learn the many ways to defend yourself from the sun

As you head outdoors to enjoy the beach, the pool, your garden or a nice walk don’t forget to face the facts—you need to protect yourself from skin cancer. There are several lines of defense from sun damage: protecting yourself, checking yourself and getting annual checkups by a dermatologist.

Some of us remember to put on sunscreen when our plans focus on the sun—say a day at the beach, lake or pool. But what about that daily two-mile walk? Or sitting outside at a baseball game or race? Or working in the garden? And what if it’s cloudy?

A Little Dab Won’t Do You
It doesn’t matter. You need sunscreen if you’re going outside. “Use a sunscreen of at least SPF 30 even when it’s cloudy outside,” says Dr. Brian Johnson of Virginia Dermatology and Skin Cancer Center in Norfolk.

You’re probably not using enough sunscreen either. “It takes almost a shot glass worth to cover the whole body,” Johnson says. “You have to reapply it several times a day.”

Made in the Shade
Wear a hat, long sleeves and use an umbrella if you’re sitting on the beach. “Get as much shade as possible,” Johnson says. “The more you can protect yourself from the sun, the better.’”

Tanning Beds—Just as Bad as The Sun
A tanning bed does not protect you from sun damage, Johnson says. “Tanning beds are just as bad as the sun—actually they’re a little more intense than the sun,” he says.

Darker Skin Color Doesn’t Protect You
If your skin is naturally dark, you’re not free and clear. Dark skin does not equal sun protection, Johnson says. “Usually African Americans, Hispanics or other people of color think they’re not at risk,” he says. “That is false. Usually people of those ethnic groups don’t get as much skin cancer, but they do get skin cancer. They may get it on the palms of their hands or on the soles of their feet where there’s not as much pigment.”

Self-exams—looking at your moles and looking for unusual spots—are the next line of defense. Anything suspicious, get it checked. Think ABCDE. A is for asymmetric— if a mole does not look completely round, it’s suspect, Johnson says. B is for border—if a mole’s border is notched, not smooth, get it checked. C is for color— anything black, blue or very dark brown is reason for concern. D is for diameter— if it’s larger than the eraser on top of a pencil, it’s suspect. E is for exposure— you really need to take your clothes off, get up to the mirror and take a look everywhere on your body, Johnson says.

See a Dermatologist
From your late teens, you should get an annual skin check from a dermatologist, Johnson says. A child with a lot of moles should be checked before he or she is a teenager, he says. If you have a family history of skin cancer, get screened.

About Skin Cancer
Melanoma is the most deadly. “It’s probably one of the worst cancers you can get,” Johnson says. It doesn’t respond well to chemo or radiation. And, it spreads quickly. It can get into your lymphatic system and travel to your bones, brain and all your organs, he said. “The best treatment is early removal.” That’s why it’s important to check yourself and get to a dermatologist quickly if you suspect something is amiss. Squamous cell skin cancer, which looks like a growing bump, occurs in skin that is exposed to the sun. It can spread to other parts of the body, but rarely does so, he says.

Basal cell skin cancer is the most common, he says. It rarely spreads. Problems arise because basal cell skin cancer occurs most often on the face and other exposed areas. “Removing them can be a cosmetic problem,” he says.

The surgeon has to cut deep and wide enough to make sure there are margins of normal skin around the spot where the cancer was, Johnson says. Usually the cells that are cut out are sent to a pathologist who can determine if there is a clean margin, he says.

Johnson is trained in the Mohs procedure that allows the surgeon to cut out the cancer, make slides right then, determine if the margins are clear, and if the margins are normal, sew up the patient with the reassurance that he removed the cancer. Wouldn’t you rather make the right decision today to protect yourself than be waiting a decade from now to hear whether your surgeon got all the cancer? “I tell my patients, ‘You don’t have to be a hermit—you just have to protect yourself,’” Johnson says.

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