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U-M PARTICIPATING IN MAJOR BREAST CANCER PREVENTION TRIALOriginally posted June, 1999
If you think a good sunburn is the best way to prepare your skin for the summer sun, think again.
Peeling sunburns, particularly on children, are the best way to develop melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.
Whether you're a weekend gardener, a sun worshipper or a fan at the ballpark, it's important to protect yourself -- and your children -- from the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer. It's most serious form is melanoma; while the least common of skin cancers, it accounts for six of every seven skin cancer deaths.
"Melanoma turns out to be problematic in Michigan. You wouldn't think that, because we're so far north, but part of the problem is the winters are so long that when the summer comes or when people go south to vacation they tend to get sunburned," says Glen M. Bowen, M.D., assistant director of the Melanoma Program at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center. "They tend to go out and get intense sun exposure. It appears that the sun exposure that leads to peeling sunburns is the most causative factor in getting a melanoma," Bowen adds.
Skin cancer typically develops in areas exposed to the sun -- the face, neck, forearms, hands, back and ears. There are three types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, typically a reddish non-healing lesion on the head or neck; squamous cell carcinoma, often a red scaly patch on the face, lips, mouth or ears; and melanoma, which looks like an irregular-shaped mole.
People with fair complexions and lighter hair are at the greatest risk of developing skin cancer. The chances of developing skin cancer increase if at-risk people receive heavy sun exposure as children.
"For parents, it's particularly important to get children in the habit of protecting themselves from the sun," Bowen says. "It's those peeling sunburns that the children get that's going to do them in when they're adults.
"If we can get the parents to teach their children how to avoid the sun, be careful with the sun and avoid those cumulative peeling sunburns, it can help reduce the risk of melanoma when those kids grow up."
Limiting exposure to the sun during its peak hours -- 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. -- is one preventive step, as is wearing hats with brims and loose-fitting clothes that protect the skin.
Sunscreen lotions also are important, although they do not completely block UV rays. "People gain a false sense of security with sunscreens. They think, 'Because I'm wearing a sunscreen, I can stay out on the beach most of the day.' Well, it's not true. It's like a filter for a cigarette: it will decrease some of the ultraviolet light that hits the skin, but it doesn't block it all out," Bowen says.
Sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher are recommended. Along with taking steps to prevent skin cancer, people should examine their skin for any unusual signs. Bowen recommends a monthly self-skin exam.
"If there's anything good to say about melanoma, it's that you can see it. And even though it's one of the most deadly cancers in the human population, it's very easily treated if caught early," he says.
A simple way to check for skin cancer is to look for the "ABCD" features when identifying a mole that may be melanoma:
Facts about skin cancer: