Written by Dr. Kelly Brown, N.D and Erika Geisheimer
When the weather gets nice, we all get excited to go outside and enjoy the sun. The outdoors becomes an extension of our living space, a place to nap, play, walk, and bike or even enjoy a picnic. Sun or cloud, UV exposure is a risk and as you spend more time outside this summer, it is important to remember the long-term risks of excess sun exposure.
Skin cancer is the leading cause of all cancers and it usually occurs in sun exposed areas. It is seen highest in people who work outdoors or love to sun tan! There are many different types of skin cancers, the three most common are, Basel cell carcinoma, Squamous cell carcinoma, and Melanoma. Basel Cell carcinoma and Squamous cell carcinoma are the least likely to metastasize (spread to other areas of the body).
Melanoma is the deadliest cancer if it has spread, so early detection is key. Melanoma occurs in pigmented areas of the body, such as moles. It is important to keep a close eye on your moles to detect any changes. A good tip is to take photographs monthly to compare, this is helpful in difficult to see areas such as your back. Screening during your yearly physical with your MD or ND is also important to detect any abnormal looking areas. A biopsy of the mole is what is used for diagnosis.
It is important to keep in mind the risk factors for melanoma during the summer months. The main risk factor is sun exposure while others include fair skin, family history, and atypical moles (moles that do not look “normal”). 30% of melanoma is from pigmented moles. When keeping an eye on your moles it is important to look for key changes. If the size of your mole is changing, that is something to be concerned about. Watch to see if the shape has changed, if its borders are becoming irregular or indistinct. Colour change is something else to look out for. Sometimes a dark brown mole will look patchy, or a very dark mole can show up suddenly. Sometimes colour around the mole can change with red, white of blue colouration showing up around the mole. Bleeding is usually a sign that the melanoma has progressed quite far and is deep. Irritation can also show up as inflammation, which is often red and causes swelling.
So how does one prevent melanoma and other skin cancers? Wear sunscreen when going outside and regularly re-apply. Choosing natural sunscreens are better for you and the environment. The active ingredients found in natural sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide which are not absorbed by the skin, working as a protective barrier and are reef safe. Other conventional sunscreens can contain hormone disrupting SPF ingredients, the worst of which is oxybenzone. Oxybenzone is highly toxic and absorbs through the skin in significant amounts according to the Environmental Working Group. Carefully read ingredients before choosing your summer sunscreen. Avoid excess sun exposure by sitting in the shade and always bring a beach umbrella when you are not sure if you will find a shady spot. Shorts and tank tops may keep you cool on hot days but, expose a lot of skin. Better clothing options for the summer are loose fitting long pants, shirts, skirts and dresses in light colours made from materials like cotton or linen. They will keep you cool and covered helping to reduce your cancer risk. Always take a hat with you to keep your face out of the sun. This will not only help prevent cancer but also prevent premature aging from sun damage.
Do not be afraid to take in the summer for all it is worth because we know in Manitoba it is far too short but, that does not mean we cannot make smart sun decisions when we do. Stop aiding sunburns this year but, instead, prevent them. Your skin will thank you for it! Take care of your skin and you will have a better summer this year and in the years to come.