Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S., but there are ways to help prevent it. As we observe Skin Cancer Awareness Month this May, let’s look at why skin cancer awareness is important, how to protect yourself, and how you can raise awareness.
- Skin Cancer Awareness Month occurs every year in May, just in time for summer’s sunny months.
- More than 4 million Americans are living with melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers annually.
- People with light or fair skin are at higher risk of skin cancer, but people of color can get skin cancer too.
Why is skin cancer awareness so important?
More than 4 million people are living with skin cancer every year in the U.S. Skin cancer awareness is important because there are things you can do to prevent or lower your risk. You can also get checked for skin cancer to help catch any potential issues early.
An estimated 90% of nonmelanoma and 85% of melanoma skin cancers develop from exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet light. Let’s take a closer look at these two types of skin cancers.
Nonmelanoma skin cancers
Squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma are called nonmelanoma skin cancers. Nonmelanoma means cancer occurs in cells in the outer layer of your skin (the epidermis) in skin cells called squamous and basal cells. They are the most common types of skin cancer.
Risk factors for getting nonmelanoma cancer include:
- Long-term exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays
- Fair skin or skin that freckles or burns easily
- Actinic keratosis (precancerous skin patches that develop after sun damage)
- Radiation exposure from cancer treatment
- Medications or health conditions that suppress the immune system
The good news about nonmelanoma is that it can be treated. Cancer specialists can treat nonmelanoma skin cancers with radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or chemical peels, among other treatments.
Melanoma skin cancers
Melanoma is an aggressive form of skin cancer. If it’s not diagnosed and treated early, melanoma can be deadly. Melanoma develops in cells that make the skin pigment melanin. This form of skin cancer can develop anywhere on the body, including on your scalp and under your nails. It can also develop in your eyes or intestines.
Risk factors for melanoma include:
- Being exposed long term to the sun’s ultraviolet rays
- Having fair or light skin or hair
- Getting sunburns with blisters as a child or teenager
- Having several large or many small moles
- Having a family history of moles or melanoma
When should you be tested for skin cancer?
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that you get screened once a year by a dermatologist. If you’re at higher risk for skin cancer, your dermatologist may suggest that you get screened more often.
During a screening, your dermatologist will do a full body scan and check for unusual spots or suspicious moles. If they see anything troubling, they may do a biopsy by removing the spot and sending it to a lab to test for cancer cells.
Many people of color think skin cancer only affects white or fair-skinned people. But people of color also get skin cancer. In people of color, however, it’s often diagnosed at a more advanced stage, making it more difficult to treat. Even if you have darker skin, it’s important to get checked regularly.
Steps you can take to protect yourself against skin cancer
There are steps you can take to protect yourself against skin cancer. The following prevention tips are for people of all skin colors:
- Use water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher (30 or higher for longer periods outdoors). Look for sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Spread over areas of your body not covered by clothing.
- Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours of sun exposure or after swimming or sweating.
- Stay in the shade, especially between 10AM and 4PM when the sun’s rays are at their strongest.
- Cover up with lightweight pants, long-sleeved shirts, a wide-brim hat, and protective sunglasses when you’re outside.
- Steer clear of tanning beds. The American Academy of Dermatology suggests that you use a self-tanning product if you want a tanned look, and still use sunscreen.
- Look over your skin from head to toe every month. If you notice a new, unusual spot or changes in a mole, contact your dermatologist.
How can you raise skin cancer awareness?
Several organizations offer ways to raise awareness for Skin Cancer Awareness Month. Here are a few ways you can get involved:
- Join the #ShareTheFacts social media campaign. The Skin Cancer Foundation provides free, downloadable images for you to share.
- Participate in The Big See, a campaign that promotes self-exams to help you look for new, changing, or unusual spots on your body.
- Share your skin cancer story on social media, and use the hashtag #ThisIsSkinCancer Story.
- Tell your local schools about Sun Smart U, a program for educators to teach their students safe sun practices.
- Spread the word about Don’t Fry Day, a campaign by the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention. It takes place the Friday before Memorial Day to promote skin cancer prevention and sun safety.
- Create a fundraising campaign, or donate funds to support cancer organizations.
The bottom line
With millions of people living with skin cancer each year, skin cancer awareness is more important than ever. During the month of May, get involved with one of the awareness campaigns to spread the word about skin cancer. Remember, anyone can get skin cancer, no matter the color of your skin. Lower your risk by taking steps to avoid the sun, using sunscreen, and doing monthly self-exams.
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American Cancer Society. (2019). Basal and squamous cell skin cancer risk factors.
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Carroll, M. (2020). Skin Cancer Awareness Month: Be proactive, reduce your risk. National Foundation for Cancer Research.
Gupta, A. K., et al. (2016). Skin cancer concerns in people of color: Risk factors and prevention. Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention.
National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Definition of nonmelanoma skin cancer.
National Cancer Institute. (2019). Risk factors for melanoma skin cancer.
National Cancer Institute. (2021). Melanoma treatment (PDQ®)–Patient version.
National Cancer Institute. (2021). Skin cancer prevention (PDQ®)–Patient version.
National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention. (n.d.). Don’t Fry Day.
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Skin Cancer Foundation. (n.d.). Sun Smart U: Rays Awareness: Preventing skin cancer lesson.
Skin Cancer Foundation. (2022). Actinic keratosis warning signs: Early detection best practices.
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Written by Ana Gascon Ivey | Reviewed by Patricia Pinto-Garcia, MD, MPH | Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels