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Skin Cancer

What's the Problem?

Although many cases of skin cancer can be prevented by avoiding exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays, many Americans still are not taking action to protect themselves. Even a few serious sunburns can increase your risk of skin cancer.

Cases of skin cancer are rising in the United States and prevention remains key in reducing its incidence. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that more than 1 million new cases of highly curable basal cell or squamous cell skin cancer, and 53,600 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in 2002. An estimated 9,600 deaths from skin cancer are expected this year: 7,400 from melanoma and 2,200 from other skin cancers. The incidence of melanoma—the most deadly form of skin cancer—has increased about 3% per year since 1981.

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Who's at Risk?

Everyone of every skin color is potentially at risk. However, people who: burn easily, have multiple or atypical moles, a family or personal history of skin cancer, fair complexions, or have chronic exposure to the sun are at higher risk.

Can It Be Prevented?

Yes. The main way to prevent skin cancer is avoiding exposure to UV rays; however, many people either don't understand the risks of UV exposure or don't take them seriously. Only one third of adults regularly use sunscreen. And while sun protection rates are higher among toddlers thanks to their parents, these rates decrease as children reach adolescence and parental control diminishes.

Some of the reasons people get sunburned are:

  • society views tanned skin as healthy and attractive;
  • since skin cancer typically develops after years of sun exposure, young adults don't see the consequences of their behavior until it's too late;
  • some people incorrectly believe that one needs an initial sunburn to start a baseline tan;
  • people overlook skin protection options other than sunscreen;
  • people of all ages tend to think about protecting themselves from the sun at the beach or lake, and don't remember to protect themselves during other outdoor activities; and
  • sunscreen and other skin protection options are sometimes used as a response to a burn rather than as prevention. Once the skin is sunburned, it's too late; the damage has been done.

The Bottom Line

Everyone needs to protect themselves from dangerous UV rays, particularly those at increased risk. People with increased risk have: light skin color, chronic exposure to the sun, a history of sunburns, or family or personal history of skin cancer.

It is crucial to prevent sunburn, not just treat it after it has already happened. In order to prevent sunburn:

  • cover up—wear a shirt, beach cover-up or pants;
  • avoid midday sun when UV rays are strongest and most harmful;
  • seek the shade of a tree, umbrella, or tent;
  • wear a wide-brimmed hat;
  • wear sunglasses, preferably wraparound; and
  • always use sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 15 with both UVA and UVB protection and re-apply after swimming or other physical activities.

Case Example

Blonde Julia is "kidnapped" at her bridal shower by her hostess and guests, and whisked away to an impromptu bachelorette party at a nearby park. Too busy with opening gifts and enjoying the cool, sunny spring day, everyone forgets about protecting their skin. The result is a very sunburned bride and bridesmaids at the wedding two days later, a very angry and embarrassed groom, and a "lobster" wedding photo the bride will never live down.

  • Page last reviewed: February 23, 2011
  • Page last updated: February 23, 2011
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