Skin Cancer Doesn’t Take a Day Off

I see my dermatologist every six months, or more frequently as needed. One of those 6-month checkups seems to always fall right before Christmas, which gave me the realization this year that skin cancer doesn’t take a day off. Ever.

Skin cancer isn't courteous

Skin cancer doesn’t care if it’s your birthday, or Christmas time, or if you’re on vacation. Suspicious areas arise whenever they feel like it. Biopsies may be needed no matter if it’s three days before Christmas. And biopsy results can be delivered the day after Christmas, even though the Christmas season is still in full swing.

The statistics are sobering

Unfortunately, I’m not alone in having been diagnosed with skin cancer during a holiday season, given that skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. In fact, more than 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer every single day. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the United States than all other cancers combined, and more people develop skin cancer because of indoor tanning than develop lung cancer because of smoking.

The most common types of skin cancer

Also according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most common skin cancers. An estimated 3.6 million cases of basal cell carcinoma are diagnosed each year in the U.S. An estimated 1.8 million cases of squamous cell carcinoma are diagnosed each year, and over 100,000 cases of melanoma are diagnosed each year.

Most skin cancer can be prevented

These are sobering statistics, especially given that many (but not all) skin cancers can be prevented. The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that around ninety percent of non-melanoma skin cancers are caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun, and that around eighty-six percent of melanomas are caused by sun exposure.

Tanning beds are not a viable alternative

Don’t think this means that you should go to a tanning bed instead of lying in the sun, though. Tanning bed radiation can be 10-15 times higher than the sun’s during its strongest rays. In a small study of 63 women diagnosed with melanoma before the age of 30, 97% of them had used tanning beds, and those who first use a tanning bed before the age of 35 increase their risk of having melanoma by a whopping 75%.

So what can you do to try to evade getting skin cancer?

The biggie

Stay out of tanning beds. There is no reason (no matter how much you try to justify it) that you need to go to a tanning bed.

Avoid prolonged exposure to the sun

Sunburns don’t just fade in time; if you see a sunburn on your skin you’ve already damaged your skin, and the damage can show up years down the road. The sun’s rays can damage your skin in as few as fifteen minutes.

This means that in addition to limiting your time in the sun, you need to also practice sun safety while you’re outside

Wear sunscreen daily, and don’t forget your scalp and ears! Wear a hat while you’re outdoors, ideally a wide-brimmed hat so you’re also covering your neck and ears while shading your face. Wear sun-protective clothing. And don’t forget to wear sunglasses! You may not think about getting skin cancer in your eyes, but it can happen, and sunglasses will help protect your eyes.

There is no good time of the year to get skin cancer, so do what you can to try to avoid it!

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