Skin cancer

February 12, 2009 —

Skin cancer

Slather on sunscreen or your skin will suffer

More than 1,500 people die every day from cancer. The second leading cause of death in the United States, cancer affects all ages and all races. And every time you forget to use sunscreen, you’re more likely to end up with the most prevalent cancer – skin cancer.

“The most important risk factor for skin cancer is exposure to sunlight. This can come from being outside or artificial sunlight from tanning beds,” explained David Strom, Ph.D., associate professor of physiology and pharmacology. “Fair-skinned people are more likely to develop skin cancer, as well as individuals that are exposed to heavy metals such as arsenic. Smoking, having a family history of skin cancer or having many moles can also increase the risk of skin cancer.”

Since exposure to sunlight is the most common risk factor for skin cancer, avoiding sunlight or tanning beds is the best way to lower your risk of skin cancer. This includes staying out of the sun during the middle of the day, using sunscreen whenever outside wearing clothing to protect your body and always wearing hats to protect your head and neck from exposure to sunlight.

Dr. Strom said the three most frequently seen forms of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma, respectively. Although basal and squamous cell carcinomas are the most frequent forms of skin cancer, they are generally easily treated and only life threatening when left untreated. Melanoma, on the other hand, is highly aggressive and often fatal if not caught early enough.

“The warning signs for these three cancers are varied. Basal cell carcinomas often present as flat firm pale areas or small, raised pink or red, shiny, waxy areas that bleed after injury. When more advanced, they may have color changes with blue, brown or black areas, have crusted areas or ooze liquid,” he said. “Squamous cell carcinomas look more wart-like. They often have crusty regions, persistent scaly red patches or are persistently open with bleeding. Melanomas are identified by observing moles/freckles that change over time.”

Melanomas are the least prevalent type of skin cancer but are the most dangerous as they are the most likely to spread. According to the American Cancer Society there will be 59,940 new cases in 2007 and 8,110 people will die of melanoma. Kyle Carpenter, D.O. student from the class of 2010, said one way to remember what to look for when watching for melanomas is to remember ABCDE:

Asymmetry- the two haves of the mole are not shaped the same
Border- the border of the mole is not smooth
Color- the mole is not evenly colored
Diameter- larger then 6mm (i.e. the size of a normal pencil eraser)
Elevation- higher then the surrounding skin

Any mole or patch of skin that has a changing ABCDE characteristic should be considered suspicious. It is important to inform your primary physician or dermatologist as soon as you notice a change. While a changed mole may seem fairly harmless, skin cancer can spread to the rest of the body. Basal and squamous cell carcinomas have a very low incidence of spreading but melanoma can and does spread. The most common area of spread is to the brain. This can very easily lead to death. Plus, the survival rate is nearly 99% of those detected early.

If the doctor thinks any skin looks suspicious, a simple skin biopsy will be performed. By examining a small bit of the lesion under a microscope, doctors can distinguish between cancer and healthy cells.

“Because early detection is so critical, it is important to monitor yourself for skin cancer on a regular basis,” Dr. Strom said. “In good light, using a full length mirror, check over all parts of your body at least a couple of times a year. Ask your spouse, significant other or a friend check hard to see areas like your head, neck, shoulders and back. Check everywhere, but focus most on areas of your body that receive the most exposure to sunlight.”

Dr. Strom also points out that with a ruler and digital camera, you can keep your own record of moles and marks on your skin so it’s easy to notice any changes.

For more information, visit www.skincancer.org

Tanning increases the risk of skin cancer

Every day, more than one million Americans visit a tanning bed. Fifteen minutes in a bed may seem like less exposure than a day in the sun but ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a proven carcinogen. New technology today has created some sunlamps that emit as much as 15 times the amount of UV rays as the sun.

Using a tanning bed more than doubles your chance of developing squamous cell carcinoma and also increases the chance to develop basal cell carcinoma, according to the American Cancer Society. Exposure to a tanning bed before the age of 35 increases your risk of melanoma by 75 percent.

The best way to lower the risk of melanoma is to avoid too much exposure to the sun and other sources of UV light. Some suggestions from the American Cancer Society include avoid being outdoors for too long, use sunscreen and lip balm liberally with an SPF of at least 15 and avoid tanning beds and sun lamps. Knowing a careful history of family members’ skin conditions is also important.


Courtney Tompkins has been part of the DMU marketing team since Nov. 2005 and loves promoting a school she believes in so thoroughly. Proud daughter and patient of DMU alumni, Courtney knows, first-hand, that Des Moines University is doing a world of good. A fan of all outdoor festivals, fruity drinks and nearly all edibles, she has a hard time narrowing down her list of favorite places to go and things to do but lists the Iowa State Fair as an all-time fave. She loves her 8-minute commute to DMU from Urbandale, a suburb of Des Moines. She and husband Tyler are owned by three large dogs, Tonka, Tucker and Tank.

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