Ask a Health Care Professional – How to Protect Yourself from Skin Cancer

By Latha Raja Shankar, M.D., Chief Medical Officer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico 

Summer in New Mexico means spending time outside, enjoying activities that make our state such a wonderful place to live. In moderation, sun exposure can be beneficial by enhancing bone health, improving sleep and easing mild depression. However, even after a short period of direct exposure, the sun’s rays can become more harmful than helpful.

How can I stay safe in the sun?

Extensive lifetime sun exposure or occasional intense exposure, especially without sunscreen, increases your skin cancer risks. Unfortunately, there are no safe ultraviolet (UV) rays. Both UVA and UVB rays can damage skin and cause skin cancer. Here are some tips for limiting exposure to UV rays:

  • Seek shade. Limit your direct exposure to the sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV rays are strongest.
  • Cover up. When you’re out, wear clothing and a wide-brimmed hat to protect as much skin as possible.
  • Protect your eyes with wrap-around sunglasses that block at least 99 percent of UV light.
  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that filters out both UVA and UVB rays and has an SPF of 15 or higher before you go outside. Don’t forget to put a thick layer on all exposed skin at least every two hours, as well as after swimming or sweating.
  • Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps: Both can cause serious long-term skin damage and contribute to skin cancer.

What are the main types of skin cancer?

There are three main types of skin cancer. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common, appearing as a red, white, or brown sore or lump. It is often slow-growing, but it’s important to seek treatment because, although it rarely occurs, untreated basal cell cancers can spread and invade other tissues. Squamous cell carcinoma also appears as a sore that won’t heal or a lump in the skin, but this type of skin cancer grows more rapidly than basal cell carcinoma and the risk of spread is higher. Melanoma is less common than the other two cancers but is the most serious. This type of cancer usually appears as a brown, black or red spot that has an irregular border. The good news is that when melanoma is caught early, there is a very high likelihood of cure.

Why is early detection important?
If you have skin cancer, finding it early is the best way to make sure it can be treated successfully. Regular skin self-exams are especially important for people who are at higher risk of skin cancer, such as people with reduced immunity, people who have had skin cancer before, and people with a strong family history of skin cancer. Talk to your doctor about how often you should examine your skin.

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