In a world where we often have no control over cancer, skin cancer is one of the exceptions. You can prevent most skin cancers, and the best way to treat it is to prevent it.
Exposure to the sun is certainly a big factor in the risk of developing skin cancer, but it's not the only one. Melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, is much more common in fair-skinned people, especially those with blond or red hair and light colored eyes.
Other risk factors that you should be aware of include:
- Family history of skin cancer
- The emergence of large – or many ordinary – moles or freckles
- A weakened immune system
- Radiation exposure
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) and certain rare inherited conditions, such as nevus syndrome (Gorlin syndrome) or xeroderma pigmentosum (XP).
"Be proactive about reducing your risks," advises Heather Landwehr, a physician assistant in Dermatology at Marshfield Clinic Marshfield and Wausau Centers.
"Wear protective clothing, including long-sleeved shirts, pants, a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses," Landwehr said. "Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher on all exposed skin, even on cloudy days. Reapply the sunscreen after swimming or sweating."
Remember that sand and pavement reflect ultraviolet rays even under an umbrella. In the winter, snow is a very good reflector of dangerous ultraviolet rays.
Besides sun exposure, a big risk factor that can be controlled is smoking. If you smoke, this is one more great reason to quit.
Here's an easy way to remember to check your skin every year: check your birthday suit on your birthday. Look at your entire body's skin carefully. If you see anything changing, growing or bleeding on your skin, consult a medical provider.
The bottom line is to reduce the risk factors that you can control, like exposure to the sun. You can't reduce the risk factors that are genetic, but being aware of them – and teaching your children – will help them now and in the future.