How well you know your own body, and the subtle changes that occur over the years, can make the difference between life and death when it comes to skin cancer. And in nearly every case, skin cancer is linked to your past and present relationship with the sun.
While breast cancer grabs the headlines and the dollars, and deservedly so, skin cancer has reached epidemic proportions among women, with more new cases diagnosed annually than the combined incidence of breast, lung and colon cancers.
In 2015, the latest year for available data, 80,442 new cases of melanomas of the skin were reported in the United States, and 8,885 people died from melanoma skin cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Georgia, with its nearly year-round sunshine, is among the top 10 states for skin cancer diagnosis, as well as deaths reported. Among women, it is those under age 45 who are disproportionately affected.
Melanoma skin cancer accounts for the majority of skin cancer deaths annually. But it has a five-year survival rate of nearly 99 percent when detected early.
According to the Melanoma Research Foundation, (www.melanoma.org), skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells. It occurs when unrepaired DNA damage to skin cells (most often caused by ultraviolet radiation from sunshine or tanning beds) triggers mutations, or genetic defects, that lead the skin cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumors.
So while genetics play some role in skin cancer, it is nearly always linked to lifestyle choices.
“Melanoma risk is predominantly associated with sun exposure in early life, whereas non-melanoma risk is associated with sun exposure in both adulthood and early life,” according to statistics from the CDC.
Pale skin was once associated with wealth and health, but there has been a paradigm shift in the past century.
Today, the medical benefits of sunlight and the outdoors is touted, along with the desire for tanned skin. Not coincidentally, the invention of the bikini in the 1940s also coincided with the rise in skin cancer incidents.
In a study of skin cancer diagnoses in Connecticut (selected because of its diligence in recording cancer statistics) there was a 2,000 percent increase in reports of skin cancer between 1950 and 2007. The population, on the other hand, only increased by 75 percent in that same time period.
Health officials put much of the blame on the popularity of tanning beds beginning in the 1980s, which delivered a dramatic increase in overall UV exposure and ultimately led to the biggest blow to women’s health when it comes to skin cancer.
While operators of tanning salons often tout the beds as a safe alternative to the sun, health officials say there is no such thing as a safe level of indoor tanning.
The Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF) strongly discourages anyone from using indoor tanning devices.
“This year, over 178,000 people will be diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, and 90 percent of these cases are linked to UV exposure from the sun and artificial sources like tanning beds,” said Shelby Moneer, director of education for the MRF. “Young people who use tanning beds are eight times more likely to develop melanoma, which is the leading cause of cancer death in women ages 25-30.”
Once detected, the standard of care for melanoma is surgical excision. On delicate areas that remain visible, such as on the lips, nose or eyelids, doctors use Mohs surgery that provides the highest cure rate and leaves the smallest surgical defect.
Looking ahead, advances in skin cancer treatment are promising, even for the most challenging cases. Five drugs have recently gained Food and Drug Administration approval for the treatment of advanced melanoma, with several others in the pipeline awaiting approval.
And similar to breast cancer detection, monthly screenings and annual checkups are the best course of successful treatment and ultimate survival for skin cancer.
Women should consistently use a broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day, regardless of sun exposure. Although many cosmetics have integrated sun protection factor in their products, health officials say these are not enough, and are often weaker than stand-alone sunscreen.
Stay in the shade when outdoors, and wear protective clothing as often as possible for optimal full body protection.
For women pursuing a “healthy glow,” the American Academy of Dermatology recommends self-tanning products as an alternative to tanning in UV light from the sun or indoor tanning.
Finding melanoma early can save your life. Each month, do a full body screen for spots or moles on the skin. See something unusual? Make an appointment with a dermatologist as soon as possible.
Be on the lookout for moles that itch or bleed, a spot that does not heal, any dark spots under toenails or fingernails, flat red spots that are dry, rough or scaly and any spots that are painful or tender.
Check your entire body and all of its nooks and crannies. Early detection of skin cancer improves prognosis, promotes survival and reduces the burden of invasive treatment procedures. Patients, through self-screening, are usually the first to detect suspicious skin lesions.
Remember, if found early, melanoma skin cancer is nearly always treatable.