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Sea Sick: Let’s shine some light on skin cancer this month

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Sea Sick: by Keith Murray

May is “Skin Cancer Awareness Month.” I realize the vast majority of my readers spend a lot of time on the water and in the sun, and I bet most probably know someone who has had skin cancer.  

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Fortunately, it is also one of the most preventable forms of cancer and highly treatable if treated early.

There are three main types of skin cancers: basal cell carcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas, and melanomas.

Basal and squamous cell skin cancers are the most common types, and both are found primarily on parts of the body exposed to the sun, such as the head and neck. The more sun you get, the better your odds of getting these cancers.

According to the American Cancer Society, basal and squamous cell cancers are much less likely than melanomas to spread to other parts of the body and become life-threatening. Still, it’s important to find and treat them early. If left alone, they can grow and invade nearby tissues and organs, causing scarring, deformity, or even loss of function in some parts of the body. Some of these cancers (especially squamous cell cancers) can spread if not treated, and can sometimes even be fatal.

Melanomas are not as common as basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, but are often more dangerous.  They can occur anywhere on the body, but are more likely to start in the chest and back in men, and the legs in women.  The neck and face of both genders are also common places for melanoma to start.

Like basal cell and squamous cell cancers, melanoma can almost always be cured in its early stages. However, if left untreated, melanoma may spread to other parts of the body, where it can be very hard to treat or deadly.

Be suspicious of anything that appears and grows quickly, or a lesion that bleeds and doesn’t heal, especially in sun-exposed areas, such as the scalp, ears, nose and lips. Lots of skin cancer patients tell me that they notice blood on their pillows or sheets.

Basal cell carcinomas often have a pearl-like appearance. With pigmented lesions look for: asymmetry, uneven or notched borders, diameter greater than a pencil eraser, or different shades of black, brown, tan, red, white, or blue.

Any pigmented lesion that changes  over time should be shown to a doctor. This includes bleeding, itching, growing in width or height, or color changes. Some advanced skin cancers can be very painful or itchy.

If you’ve had something removed, be aware of changes around the scar, such as redness, scaling or blood.

When it comes to skin cancer prevention, it is important to understand the difference between sunscreen and sunblock. Take a look at the ingredients before using any product. Sunscreens contain chemicals that absorb UV radiation. Sunblocks (also confusingly called physical sunscreens) contain minerals such as titanium or zinc that block UV radiation from reaching the skin. Sunblocks can offer broader UV protection than sunscreens. However, sunblocks are usually thicker and messier (think of the lifeguard with zinc oxide on the nose). Newer sunblock formulations offer transparency with broad spectrum protection, which is usually what I recommend.

While SPF 100 is technically better than SPF 15, the actual difference is miniscule. The AAD recommendation is to use a broad spectrum sunscreen that is at least SPF 30, and to reapply it every two hours.

I am also a big proponent of sun protective clothing. Cotton and linen shirts still allow a good deal of the sun’s harmful rays to pass through to your skin, but sun protective clothing is engineered to filter out the sun’s harmful rays. Check the tags for an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) rating, which measures the amount of UV light that passes through the fabric. A Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating measures the amount of time it takes sun-screened skin to turn red, meaning, the sunscreen’s effectiveness.

While the sun can cause sun spots, wrinkles, thinning of the skin and skin cancer, not all exposure is bad. UV light can be used to treat conditions such as jaundice, psoriasis, atopic dermatitis and lichen planus. It’s also how your body naturally produces Vitamin D. The key here is moderation: A little sun exposure is OK, but try not to overdo it.

EMT Keith Murray provides onboard CPR, AED and first-aid training as well as AED sales and service. His company can be found at TheCPRSchool.com. Comments are welcome below.

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