Being Sun Smart

Janice Mehnert, MDBy Janice Mehnert, MD

With summer upon us, almost everyone’s heart brightens with the onset of long, lazy days in the beautiful summer sun.  It is important to remember, however, that the practice of sun safety measures is crucial to avoid damage from ultraviolet rays, especially the increased risk of skin cancer that can result from too much time outdoors.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S. In New Jersey, as a beach state we have a particularly high incidence with some 2,500 new cases of melanoma (the most serious of skin cancers) annually. It is a common myth that skin cancer is always a treatable disease and that sun exposure should thus not be feared.  While indeed, many skin cancers are curable in early stages, tumors such as malignant melanoma can be quite deadly. Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to prevent the development of skin cancer:

  • Avoid excessive time in the sun.   Say no to spreading yourself with baby oil and lying out to fry, or fishing on the boat all day without protective gear like a hat or a shirt.  Try to limit time outdoors when UV rays are strongest, usually between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm.
  • When outdoors, use sun protective measures. Hats, sunglasses, sunscreen factor 15 and above – all of these will reduce your risk of painful sunburns and subsequent skin cancers.
  • Skip the tanning beds. UV radiation from sources besides the sun is also harmful. Opt for a makeup-simulated tan for a special occasion, and consider tanning beds as risky as excessive outdoor sun.

You can further reduce your skin cancer by recognizing early warning signs of skin cancer development. Watch any small spots on your skin, or the skin of your friends and family, for the following ABCDEs:

  • Asymmetry in existing spots
  • Border that is irregular
  • Color that is black, blue, or changing
  • Diameter that is bigger than the head of a pencil eraser
  • Evolving changes over time
  • Or the ugly duckling: anything that just doesn’t look right

To increase chances that any developing tumors will be found early, talk to your doctor about skin cancer. Your primary care physician and/or dermatologist will individualize plans for screening based on your health history. They may recommend a separate appointment for a full body skin exam. If you or multiple members of your family have had skin cancer, particularly melanoma, you may require more frequent skin exams.

And don’t forget to spread the word. Share your knowledge about skin cancer with your loved ones and friends. The only sure way to continue to detect and defeat skin cancer is to educate yourself and others about skin cancer risk and methods of prevention.

Janice M. Mehnert, MD, is a medical oncologist with the Melanoma and Soft Tissue Oncology Program at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, as well as an associate professor of medicine at  Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.