13 Things you need to know about skin cancer

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX -- With more than 2 million people diagnosed each year, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their lives.

May, which starts Tuesday, is National Skin Cancer Awareness Month and doctors across the country are doing what they can to educate people so that they do not become patients.

When you're out in the sun, UV rays can damage unprotected skin in as little as 15 minutes although the full effects of that sun exposure might not be visible for up to 12 hours.

While basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most common types of skin cancer, they are "highly curable."

Melanoma, on the other hand, is often another story. It is the most dangerous kind of skin cancer. Malignant melanoma often metastasizes to other parts of the body. What's more, one person dies of melanoma every hour.

Dr. Tania Cortas of Arizona Oncology explained the risk factors, signs and symptoms to 3TV's Kaley O'Kelley.

When it comes to skin cancer, the best defense is a good offense. That means, among other things, knowing the risk factors.

  1. Sunlight (UV Radiation) - too much exposure to UV radiation, either from the sun or tanning lamps increases a person's risk for melanoma.
  2. Fair skin - people with fair skin, freckling or red or blond hair have a higher risk of melanoma.
  3. Moles - certain types of moles increase a person's chance of getting melanoma.
  4. Age - chances of being diagnosed with skin cancer increase as a person gets older, but skin cancer is also found in young people.
  5. Family history - around 10 percent of people with melanoma have a close relative with the disease. This may be because the family tends to spend more time in the sun or because family members have fair skin, or both.
  6. Immune suppression - people who have been treated with medicines that suppress the immune system have an increased chance of developing melanoma.
  7. History of melanoma - people who have already had melanoma have a higher risk of getting it again.
  8. Gender - men have a higher risk than women.
  9. Xeroderma pigmentation - people with this rare, inherited condition are at a greater risk of getting melanoma.

It's also essential to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of skin cancer. Many doctors tell their patients to check their skin about once a month, keeping the ABCD rule in mind.

  1. Asymmetry - one half of the mole does not match the other half.
  2. Border irregularity - the edges of the mole are raged or notched.
  3. Color - the color of the mole is not the same all over. There may be shades of tan, brown or black and sometimes patches of red, white or blue.
  4. Diameter - the mole is wider that about 0.25 inch.

There are several simple things you can do to protect yourself.

Dangerous UV rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., even on cloudy days, and can be reflected off water, cement, sand and snow.

The CDC recommends people stay in the shade as much as possible during those midday hours.

You also should wear clothing to cover and protect your skin. A wide-brim hat will protect your face, head, ears and neck.

Sunscreen is key in the prevention of skin cancer. The CDC advises that you use one with an SPF of 15 or higher and remember to reapply it to dry skin every couple of hours throughout the day.

According to many dermatologists, most people don't apply sunscreen correctly, using just a dime-size dab for their whole bodies. That's nowhere near enough. Most dermatologist say you should be using about 1 ounce of sunscreen for each application.

Dr. Clayton Polowy of Desert Oncology Associates suggests using a quarter-size amount each for the chest, the back, the arms and the legs. Don't forget the tops of your ears, your eyelids, your nose and your lips.

You also need to be aware that sunscreen can expire, especially if it's left out in the sun. That means last year's bottle is no good.

It's not just the sun that can be dangerous. UV rays from tanning bed and sun lamps are just as bad.

"Tanned skin is damaged skin," according to the CDC. "Any change in the color of your skin after time outside -- whether sunburn or suntan -- indicates damage from UV rays. Using a tanning bed causes damage to your skin, just like the sun."