Grab your hat and your SPF 30: May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month

By Lisa Page

Throughout the many rain showers we received in Sacramento this spring, I have been dreaming about warm summer days. Laying outside by the pool with a celebrity gossip magazine in one hand and a refreshing lemonade in the other (I’d typically say with a margarita, but I’m pregnant so my dreams are a bit different these days).

I know this isn’t reality for me, though, having had a melanoma 11 years ago, I have to be really careful about sun exposure. Odds are higher that I’ll have another melanoma. Fortunately, my melanoma was stage one and caught early on. Regardless, gone are the days of tanning beds, long hours on the beach and tanning oil for me.

With summer fast approaching, I needed a stark reminder of how important it is to protect one’s skin. After more than a decade, I’ve started to feel invincible again. So I chatted recently with Dr. Ann Haas, a Sacrameno dermatologist and President of the California Dermatology Association, about how we can all protect ourselves from the sun without sacrificing our summer days and having to spend them cooped up inside. We also talked about the warning signs of melanoma and skin cancer. Below is some of the great advice she shared with me.

Page: What is one thing about skin cancer that most people are surprised to find out?

Dr.  Haas: People are surprised that you can get melanoma where the sun doesn’t shine. It’s not very common, but it can happen, and everyone needs to be aware of this possibility. Check your toe nails, back side, etc.

Page: What’s the one piece of skin related advice every woman should adhere to as we head into summer?

Dr. Haas: Don’t rely entirely on your sunscreen. It won’t protect you all day. Sunscreen is made for short-term exposure not for being outside all day. You also need to cover up, and not with a baseball cap, but with a wide-brimmed hat, which also happens to be much cooler anyway.

Page: I didn’t realize that about sunscreen. How does one determine what is a safe amount of time to be out in the sun?

Dr. Hass: There is no one-size-fits all answer here. It depends on if you’re fair skinned or dark skinned. If you use sunscreen only, then your time out in the sun needs to be much shorter. If you wear a wide-brimmed hat and a light long-sleeved shirt, then you can be outside for much longer. We’d all be surprised if we kept track of how many hours we spend outside. If you’re hot, chanced are you’re probably receiving too much sun.

If you garden or bike, go early in the morning or in the evening. If you’re running errands, take a hat, which covers your head, neck and sometimes even your chest. Also, always seek shade whenever and wherever you can.

My patients that move up from Southern California or the Bay Area where it’s more cloudy don’t realize how much more susceptible they are to sun exposure here – it’s much more. People newly transplanted to Sacramento need to be aware of that.

Page: What are the warning signs of skin cancer?

Dr. Haas: There is non-melanoma skin cancer like basal cell. That’s where you need to keep an eye out for bumps that are new, often times they are pink, and they bleed, itch or crust and do not heal. Then there’s melanoma which is usually dark but not always.

The five things to look for in melanomas are called the ABCDEs, which stand for:

  • A = Asymmetry (If you draw a line through this mole, the two halves will not match.)
  • B = Border (The borders of an early melanoma tend to be uneven. The edges may be scalloped or notched.)
  • C = Color (Having a variety of colors is another warning signal. A number of different shades of brown, tan or black could appear. A melanoma may also become red, blue or some other color.)
  • D = Diameter (Melanomas usually are larger in diameter than the size of the eraser on your pencil (1/4 inch or 6 mm), but they may sometimes be smaller when first detected.)
  • E = Evolution (Any change — in size, shape, color, elevation, or another trait, or any new symptom such as bleeding, itching or crusting — points to danger.)
  • If you notice any of these warning signs, see your dermatologist.

Page: Speaking of seeing your dermatologist, how often should someone visit her dermatologist?

Dr. Haas: This again depends on a number of factors – your family history, personal history, skin type and history in the sun. Since you’ve had one, have had a lot of sunburns and have a family history, you’re at a high risk and should come every six months. Others can come annually. Every woman needs to do her own self-checks regularly though.

Page: What SPF do you recommend that people wear?

Dr. Haas: In Sacramento, I recommend at least 30 SPF. People need to remember to reapply as needed. If you’re sweating or in the water, reapply every couple of hours, and make sure you give the sunscreen time to dry into your skin. If you’re going to be in the pool all day, I recommend rash guard shirts (there are lots of cool looking ones out there now).

Page: What is one thing every woman should avoid?

Dr. Haas: Don’t do tanning booths…EVER. They admit UVA, which is the “aging ray” and causes premature aging, and there are lots of studies that show a link between tanning beds and skin cancer and melanoma. Especially in a young woman, it increases your chances by 75 percent. Every patient between 20 and 35-years-old that I’ve seen in my practice with a melanoma – except for one – has been in a tanning booth. Plus, there are all the bacteria in those things. It’s like lying in someone else’s bath tub.

Page: That’s really gross. So what’s the alternative?

Dr. Haas: There are really great, natural-looking self-tanners available now – all are fine and safe.

Page: Any favorite products?

Dr. Haas: It all depends on the individual so I don’t recommend specific products. I personally use a different sunscreen for my face and body and I wear something different when I’m at the beach than when I’m golfing. Some people like drier sunscreens and others prefer gels. The key is to try different kinds. It’s like different shoes for different events.

Page: Now there’s an analogy we can all understand. Any parting words of advice?

Dr. Haas: The biggest message is to not rely only on your sunscreen. Just because you’re wearing it doesn’t mean you’re okay. It means you’re better, but only for a short period of time. So, ladies, grab your wide-brimmed hat and your long-sleeved cover-up and enjoy those summer days!

For more information about melanoma and other forms of skin cancer, visit the American Academy of Dermatology.

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