Originally Published: May 19, 2007 9:35 p.m.
In pursuit of "healthy" shades of color on their skin, people have basted themselves with baby oil and baked in the sun, or have had too many episodes of sunburnt shoulders, noses and ears.
Fair-skinned people who burn easily and tan with difficulty are the skin type most at risk for skin cancer from sun exposure. The consequences of such sun exposure are usually visibly in the mirror 20 years later as wrinkles and perhaps as pre-cancerous or cancerous changes in the skin.
Precancerous growths are visible to the naked eye, and they look different from normal cells when examined under a microscope.
The three main types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma.
Basal cell carcinomas are tumors that usually appear as small, shiny fleshy bumps or nodules. Often, a persistent, non-healing sore that bleeds or oozes for several weeks is a sign of an early basal cell carcinoma.
Squamous cell carcinomas appear as nodules or as red, scaly patches.
Malignant melanomas may appear without warning as a dark mole or other dark spot in the skin.
If doctors detect and treat in their early stages, all three types can be curable. The risks for melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, are higher in people that have a high number of moles. Moles deserve prompt medical attention if any get as large as the diameter of a pencil eraser, have a ragged edge or border, seem to be irregular in shape rather than round, or have uneven coloring.
Compromised immune systems as the result of chemotherapy, an organ transplant, excessive sun exposure and diseases such as HIV/AIDS or lymphoma can increase a person's risk of melanoma.
Exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV) is stronger during the summer, at higher altitudes, at peak times of day, when reflected off water, sand and snow and even through clouds. Areas closer to the equator, such as Arizona, have more direct UV radiation than other parts of the country.
To protect your skin from premature aging and the risks of skin cancer, avoid being in the mid-day sun (from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) by seeking shade, wearing dark, loose-fitting clothing with long sleeves or clothes made with UV-protective fabrics. Apply a sunscreen or sunblock product with Sun Protective Factor (SPF) of 15 or more to sensitive areas of skin such as ears, neck, scalp and face, and any other bare skin. Apply sunscreens about 30 minutes before going outdoors, and then re-apply every two hours.
Seek skin examinations by your doctor at least once a year and even though you can examine your skin head-to-toe on a monthly basis, consider asking a family member or good friend to check your scalp, back and back of the legs if you can feel something there but can't quite find a way to look at it closely.
For a quick reading of the UV index, or strength of the UV radiation, in your zip code, visit www.epa.gov/sunwise. For online videos on prevention and detection of skin cancer, visit www.shadefoundation.org. Another site with good information and a list of sunscreen products is www.skincancer.org.
Remember, five or more sunburns double the risk for getting skin cancer, so cover up with a wide brim hat, protect your eyes with UV-blocking sunglasses and practice "sun safety."