Watch for signs of skin cancer

Fifty years ago, on a bright sunny day, you grabbed your bat and ball and headed for the door. Kids and grownups heading outdoors today are much more aware of the need for sun protection. Most won’t leave the house without a hat. And it shouldn’t stop there.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, there will be an estimated 76,000 new cases of common skin cancer this year, compared to 58,500 new cases for a decade ago.

Dr. Eileen Murray, a dermatologist at the Winnipeg Clinic, says people should remember the ozone layer isn’t as thick as it used to be. That means more of the sun’s damaging rays are reaching the earth.

“People who are adults now had a lot of sun exposure when they were kids, with no protection, and now they’re spending a lot of times outdoors, so its important for them to consider how to protect themselves,” says Murray.

She says the incidence of skin cancer is definitely going up. That’s because those adults are now reaching their fifties-a time when many skin cancers show themselves. But much of the damage may have been caused years before.

Preventable cancer
The Canadian Dermatology Association reportshat signs of skin cancer can come 10 to 30 years after the damage is done. The more time children and youths spend in the sun, the higher the risk for developing skin cancers. The CDA also estimates that about 60 to 70 per cent of cancers could be preventable with healthier, more protective lifestyles.

Dr. Murray says many adults don’t bother to take extra precautions because they think children are most at risk, and the damage has already been done.

It is true that childhood is a crucial time to protect skin. Dr. Murray says two serious burns in childhood doubles your risk of developing melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. But, she says, that doesn’t mean that patients who are older should ignore sun safety.

“What really bothers me is I have mothers come in, who never let the sun touch their children, but still go out and get a tan, because they think it looks nice.” Sun exposure can still cause cancers, and advances the aging of your skin.

Exposure accumulates
Dr. Dick Lewis is a cosmetic dermatologist in Victoria, and he says sun exposure as an adult is dangerous as well.

“Every exposure-even daylight in winter-accumulates, and increases risk for basal cell cancer, as well as wrinkles,” so it is important to be aware year-round. Since risks for skin cancer can increase with just intermittent sun exposure, resist the temptation to get a tan on your two-week vacation.

“I don’t recommend tanning at all,” says Murray, “if you have tanned skin, you have damaged skin.” And tanning beds aren’t the answer. The UVA exposure can lead to premature aging of the skin, and possibly contribute to skin cancer as well.

However, there are things that can help. There are new treatments that may remove ‘pre-cancerous’ spots. And as in all cancers, early diagnosis and treatment are crucial, sometimes the difference between life and death.

Next page: Watch for these signs

Cancer signs
There are 3 main types of cancers:

  • Melanoma
  • Basal Cell Cancers
  • Squamous Cell Carcinomas
  • Actinic/solar keratoses are called ‘pre-malignant’ or ‘pre-cancerous’, and can develop into Squamous Cell Carcinomas.

Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer. Watch for freckle-type spots that are uneven on the edges, and asymmetrical. Also, any existing spot that begins to change shape. This type is curable if caught early enough, but there is no effective chemotherapy for the later stages.

Squamous cell carcinomas are the second most common skin cancer. Look for areas of chronic scaling, and discolouring, usually pink or brown. If the scale comes off, it will reappear.

Basal cell cancer has an elevated, blister-like bump on areas that are sun-exposed.These are often found on the face, and appear to be blemishes that never fully heal.

Pre-cancerous signs
You should also watch for pre-cancerous lesions called actinic/solar keratoses. They are small and scaly, and could become harder and more crusted over time, possibly indicating squamous cell carcinomas.

Dr. Murray says most of her patients can tell something is wrong even before she can. The Canadian Dermatology Association has an online Spot check which may give you an idea of what to look for. If you aren’t sure, get it checked.

Sun safety
When the weather is beautiful, prepare for outdoor enjoyment with a few simple precautions:

  • Stay out of the sun during the peak hours of 11 am to 4 p.m. This will reduce your exposure enormously.
  • If your shadow is shorter than you are, try to stay out of the sun.
  • Always wear sunscreen, and be vigilant during those midday hours. Sunscreens can be bought non-perfumed, and non-allergenic. The Canadian Dermatology Association puts its stamp of approval on sunscreens that have a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15, and protects from damaging UV rays.
  • When putting on sunscreen, be generous. Studies have shown that most people apply just one quarter of the recommended amount of sunscreen. So pick a sunscreen with a high SPF to help compensate.
  • Don’t forget the tips of your ears, and the back of your neck. But don’t let a high-SPF sunscreen encourage you to stay out longer.
  • Cover up with a hat, and long, loose clothing. A product called Rit Sun Guard can be washed into clothing to increase its sun-screening ability.
  • Don’t forget the sunglasses. The Canadian Opthamological Society warns that prolonged exposure to the sun can permanently damage your eyes.
  • Be sure to keep an eye on children and grandchildren too. Make sure they have big, comfy hats. Getting a fun, colourful hat as a gift may make it more likely they’ll wear it.

Updated with files from