By Dr. Tamar Hajar and Dr. Vinh Chung
Colorado’s 300 days of glorious sunshine and the high altitude come at a price. We have one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the country because of the intense ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Skin cancer, which is caused by an abnormal growth of skin cells, is the most common type of cancer in the United States. We have more skin cancer than all other types of cancers –breast, lung, prostate, colon…etc.– combined. One out of five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. The good news is that skin cancers are preventable. They are also curable if caught early.
Non-melanoma skin cancers (basal cell carcinomas or squamous cell carcinomas) are slow-growing tumors occurring on sun-exposed areas. Most are not life-threatening, but they could be disfiguring if left untreated. Melanoma, the deadliest of all skin cancers, can spread to lymph nodes and other vital organs and lead to death.
The most preventable cause of skin cancer is overexposure to UV light. Coloradoans get plenty of UV light when we hike, bike, run, and enjoy the great outdoors. Wearing a hat and UV protective clothing and applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least an SPF 30 are the best ways to protect our skin from harmful UV rays. Even during daily activities like driving, we absorb UV radiation year-round, and clouds offer little protection from the damaging rays. If we must go outdoors, it is best to avoid sun exposure during peak hours (10am-4pm). And we should never use tanning beds.
Sometimes, even with the best precautions, skin cancer may develop. Most cancers, including melanoma, are curable if caught early. Checking your skin for changes will allow for the treatment of skin cancer at its earliest stages. Skin cancers usually develop in areas that are exposed to sunlight but can arise anywhere on the body. The most important sign of skin cancer is a change in your skin. This includes new growths, sores that do not heal, changes in existing moles…etc. It is important to know that not all skin cancers look the same, so getting an expert opinion from a dermatology provider is prudent.
A board-certified dermatologist is trained to spot suspicious lesions when doing a full-body exam. A thorough examination involves the evaluation of every square inch of skin from head to toes. A dermatologist may also work with a dermatology physician assistant or dermatology nurse practitioner who has been trained to conduct skin cancer screenings. If you have a strong history of sun exposure or a family history of skin cancer, you should have a baseline skin exam. An early diagnosis can lead to early treatment and ultimately an early cure.
There are many different treatment options for skin cancers, depending on the type of skin cancer and how aggressive it is. Treatment options include liquid nitrogen, topical creams, and surgical procedures that can be performed in the office. Most skin cancers, if caught early, are curable.
We all live in Colorado because of the magnificent mountains and the stunning blue clear skies. And we should enjoy the outdoors whenever we can. We just need to remember to be prudent about protecting our skin. If we take good care of our skin, we will be able to enjoy one of the most spectacular places on this planet for many more years to come.
About the authors:
Dr. Tamar Hajar and Dr. Vinh Chung are board-certified dermatologists and fellowship-trained Mohs surgeons. They specialize in diagnosing and treating skin cancer. They take care of patients in Pueblo