As a registered nurse and the former ranking member of the New York State Assembly Health Committee, I would like to share with you some important information about skin cancer from the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute. Skin cancer has become the most common form of cancer affecting more than 1 million Americans each year. Most of the time, skin cancer is caused by too much exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, and the risk can be reduced by taking simple protective measures.
Types of Skin Cancer
There are two main types of skin cancer – non-melanomas and melanomas. Non-melanomas are the most common type and include squamous cell and basal cell cancers. Non-melanomas rarely spread to other parts of the body, but they can cause scarring.
Melanoma is much more serious than non-melanoma cancers. While typically curable in its early stages, it is much more likely to spread to other parts of your body than non-melanomas.
Melanomas may be detected with the “ABCD rule”:
- Asymmetry: One half of a spot, mole or birthmark does not match the other half.
- Border: The edges are irregular, ragged, notched or blurred.
- Color: The color is not the same all over or has an irregular pattern and may include shades of brown or black, or patches of red, pink, white or blue.
- Diameter: Typical moles are usually less than 1/4 inch across (the size of a pencil eraser). Melanomas can be smaller but are often larger than 1/4 inch.
Some melanomas do not fit these “rules” so it is important to consult your doctor about anything you are unsure of.
How to Protect Yourself
Limit sun exposure: UV rays are most intense between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you don't know how strong the sun is, you can do a “shadow test.” If your shadow is shorter than you are, the sun's rays are strongest.
Remember that UV rays pass through water, too. Sand and snow increase your UV exposure because they reflect sunlight.
Cover up: Long-sleeved shirts, pants and long skirts provide the most protection, and darker colors block more UV rays than light. Choose fabric with a tighter weave for more protection. If you can see light through a fabric, it probably won't block UV rays.
Don’t forget your hat: The best hat is one with a 2 or 3-inch brim all around. This protects sensitive facial areas.
Sunscreen: Look for a product with 15 or higher sun protection factor (SPF) and apply it regularly.
The higher the number, the better you are protected. “Broad spectrum” sunscreens protect against UVA and UVB rays. Waterproof sunscreens are usually effective for about 80 minutes, even if you are swimming or sweating.
Water resistant sunscreens will protect you for about 40 minutes on average. Read the instructions before applying any product. Generally, you should apply sunscreen about 30 minutes before you go outside. About a palmful typically can cover the arms, legs, neck and face of an average adult. Reapply every 2 hours - more if you are swimming or sweating. Use sunscreen lip balm as well.
Wear UV-blocking sunglasses: Sunglasses should block 99-100 percent of UVA and UVB radiation.
Those that say “special purpose” or “meets ANSI UV requirements” block at least 99 percent. Cosmetic lenses generally block 70 percent.
Avoid tanning booths and sunlamps: Both of these kinds of devices give off UVA and UVB rays and put you at risk for skin cancer.
Maureen O’Connell is the Nassau County Clerk. She was first elected in 2005 as a Republican.