May is Skin Cancer and Melanoma Awareness Month. Each Monday of this month will feature a post pertaining to sun safety and skin cancer awareness and prevention.
– – –
There’s a lot of information out there about skin cancer but despite how common it is we don’t experience the, “Pinkwashing,” phenomena. While I’m glad we don’t see overt capitalization and bullshit faux-charities in abundance, we do need people to be more aware of and in touch with their own bodies so they can get treatment before is too late. Here’s some of what you should know.
There are several types, but I’m going to discuss the most common three.
Starting in the body’s pigment cells (what gives our skin our color…and tan!) – happening on any skin surface, it is less common with people who naturally have darker skin – but it can happen. Melanoma is the most fatal; not only is it most likely to metastasize (move to other parts of the body)- there’s rarely any pain or discomfort, and by the time you’re noticeably sick, it’s often too late.
My mom was received a Stage 0 diagnosis aka melanoma in situ and was treated, but is still needing to go back for atypical cell biopsies and removal.
Basal Cell Carcinoma (Skin Cancer)
This skin cancer most commonly occurs on areas that are frequently exposed to the sun (face, hands). This affects people with fair skin most frequently. It rarely metastasizes.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
This is the most common form of skin cancer for those with dark skin. It does affect those with fair skin, however, typically in areas with more frequent sun exposure. It sometimes metastasizes.
Sun & Tanning Beds
Had one really nasty, blistering sunburn? You have a higher risk. Sunburns during adulthood carry more, “weight,” in terms of your risk than ones sustained during childhood.
Your total lifetime exposure translates to greater risk – someone who vacations in the Caribbean and has an office job is at less risk than, say, a beach lifeguard or construction worker who is in the sun all the damn time.
Tanning in the sun. We’ve talked about this already. Even though it feels and looks nice for now, you’re putting yourself at risk.
Just because it isn’t outdoors in the sun doesn’t mean it is safe. Tanning beds still emit UV rays, which put you at risk. Due to the direct exposure, the risk of melanoma in people who have used tanning beds before age 30 – so yes, that means, me, too – increases 75%. Squamous Cell is increased by 2.5 times, and Basal Cell by 1.5. Is it worth it? No.
Unlike something so minor as chickenpox, if you’ve had skin cancer or melanoma before, you have a greater risk of developing it again. Its important to remain vigilant about your skin! On top of that, if you have a family history of skin cancer (melanoma or otherwise), you may be more likely to develop it. So far, my mom has had a diagnosis, and my dad is due for biopsies. We’ll see how (much more) concerned I need to be.
Pale/fair (esp. with pink undertones)? Green, grey, or blue eyes? Blonde or red hair? Super freckly? I have bad news. As for me – I’m lighter, but not fair, my eyes are blue-green. My hair isn’t blonde, and I’m not freckled.
Things like Retin-A or topicals containing AHAs can make you more susceptible to sunburn and, therefore, skin cancer. You should ask your doctor and/or pharmacist if your meds have this side effect – even common things like antibiotics, antidepressants, and contraceptives can affect your sensitivity to the sun.
Atypical ones that are oddly shaped, colored, larger than normal – are more likely to lead to melanoma. Having these doesn’t mean you DO have it, but it is good to have a dermatologist check them out.
Having 50+ total increases your risk, even if they’re common or small. This can include things you consider freckles, so again – talk to a doc and get their input. Better safe than sorry.
Basal and Squamous
Old scars, burns, and ulcers can be more likely to develop these carcinomas.
If you handle arsenic as part of your job (because that is part of, I imagine, no one’s hobbies) limit it as much as possible and ALWAYS use proper handling procedures/equipment/what have you. If you are handling it for work and your employer is not making necessary safety measures available, report them to OSHA. Seriously, stuff is not a joke, and your health is not worth their laziness.
Radiation (for…yeah, likely other cancer. Because it didn’t suck enough the first time? Scumbag cancer..) can also make you more susceptible to these varieties.
Some strains of HPV may meddle with your skin and lead to developing squamous cell skin cancer. The Gardasil vaccine won’t prevent these strains, and they are not related to any STI-type strains.
If you have odd, dark scaly growths or patches, you may have actinic keratosis, which is also linked to squamous cell skin cancer. Treating this condition when it is identified usually removes the risk, but ignoring it and allowing it to progress increases the likelihood of transitioning to a cancerous state.
Melanoma and other skin cancers do not affect only the surface of our skin. They can affect our nail beds, and worse, our eyes.
I won’t post any scary photos, but they’re out there – and BuzzFeed recently shared this article discussing one 27-year-old’s experience. There’s a photo of her face’s reaction to her specific treatment, it’s rough.
I won’t tell you to go outside wrapped in a thick, opaque sheet year ’round, but it is important to be aware of the factors that increase your risk so you can take action and make healthier choices. Sunscreen, always, even if you hate it, especially on your hands (reapply after washing your hands). Hats are good. Sunglasses are good. Listen to your body – if you notice, during an outdoor stint, your skin feeling taut or irritated, you’re probably burning. Get inside. Pay attention to your skin and report changes to your doctor.