Healthcare Question of the Month

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Question: I am concerned about skin cancer. What steps do I need to take for prevention and early detection?

Answer: As summer swings in with full force, it’s time to take a serious look at skin health. Every year, more than one million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer, making it the most common cancer in the United States. It’s an eye-opening statistic, but prevention can be relatively easy and, with early detection and proper treatment, skin cancer is highly curable.

“Luckily, unlike many other forms of cancer, prevention is relatively simple,” says Dr. Erika L. Swanson, Columbia St. Mary’s radiation oncologist. Dr. Swanson recommends following these tips to keep your skin safe:

  • Avoid ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Seek out shady areas whenever possible.

  • Wear sunglasses with UV-blocking lenses and a hat with a wide brim to conceal your head, face, ears and neck.

  • Cover exposed skin with sunscreen that has an SPF of at least 30 and also protects against UVA and UVB radiation. Reapply often, especially after exercise or swimming, and use a lip balm containing a SPF of 30 or higher.

  • Avoid the artificial UV radiation of sun lamps and tanning booths. They are also extremely harmful.

But even if you take every last precaution to protect your skin, you should still perform regular skin checks.

“Since skin cancer always presents visibly on the skin – whether as a dry or flaky patch, a red spot, or as a mole – being familiar with the condition of your skin is vitally important,” says Dr. Swanson. Be sure to use a mirror or the help of a relative or friend to check even hard-to-see places on your body for any changes in your skin.

Most health insurance plans cover an annual skin check from a dermatologist, so be sure to take advantage of this important and painless screening. Like all cancers, early detection is key.

“With a few simple precautionary measures and some regular inspection,” says Dr. Swanson, “you’ll be well on your way to a safe summer.”  

The ABC’s of Melanoma
Melanoma, the most common and deadly form of skin cancer, most often presents as a mole and there are several early warning signs to be on the lookout for, including:

Asymmetry – One half is different than the other half.
Border Irregularity – The edges are notched, uneven or blurred.
Color – The color is uneven. Shades of brown, tan and black are present.
Diameter – Diameter is greater than 6 millimeters (about the size of a pencil eraser).
Evolution – Color or shape changes over time.

If you have a mole that meets any one of these criteria, you should have it checked by a doctor immediately.


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