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Why Skin Cancer Rates Continue To Climb

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Dermatologist performing a skin cancer screening

The Skin Cancer Foundation estimates one in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their lives. What’s worse? The incidence of skin cancer has tripled over the last three decades as documented in 2015. 

“In 2017, it’s projected that 5.4 million people will be diagnosed with skin cancer,” says Rick K. Wilson, MD, FASDS, FABVLM, Director of Cooper Clinic Dermatology. “About 75,000 of those will be the really serious malignant melanoma.” In fact, there are more skin cancers diagnosed each year than colon, lung, breast and prostate cancers combined.

With everything we know about protection and prevention against skin cancer, what’s causing the observed increase in skin cancers? Wilson attributes the rise to the use of tanning beds and other lifestyle choices. Below, he discusses why sunscreen application matters and why thorough annual skin exams can help save your life.

 Why Does Your Skin Tan?
“A tan is an injury response,” says Wilson. “Your skin is trying to protect itself against the UV radiation, which damages the DNA of your skin cells. If that doesn’t self-repair, it has potential down the road for skin cancer cells to get started.” Our bodies are built with automatic DNA repair mechanisms, explains Wilson. “If we didn’t have those mechanisms, we’d be dying by the millions from skin cancer each year with our current behavior.” 

Who’s Most At Risk?
You don’t have to be a sun-worshiper to develop skin cancer. In fact, skin cancer is mostly attributed to cumulative UV radiation. “Each time you’re standing out in the parking lot talking to your friend, you’re absorbing a little more UV radiation,” says Wilson. “Every time you’re driving your car without sunscreen, that’s more UV radiation. It adds up.” 

In fact, many patients Wilson sees didn’t develop skin cancer from baking under the sun for hours on end. Instead, many have simply been living an active outdoor lifestyle. “We have patients who are runners, tennis players, golfers,” says Wilson. “We try to get them to realize that what they think is casual, brief exposure is still accumulating significant UV radiation over the years.” 

The most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Wilson says people with fair skin and light eye coloring are most at risk for developing skin cancer. While basal and squamous cell carcinomas are less common in darker-skinned individuals, they can still develop life-threatening melanoma. 

The Cost of Indoor Tanning
When it comes to indoor tanning beds, Wilson isn’t shy about expressing how he feels. 

“I wish we would get rid of indoor tanning beds,” says Wilson. “Entire countries, like Australia and Brazil, have outlawed tanning beds. They’re a known carcinogen, proven cancer makers. We have a minor epidemic of malignant melanoma in young, Caucasian women 15 to 30 years of age, and the common causal factor for them is tanning bed abuse.”

The youngest patient Wilson has diagnosed with melanoma is a 16-year-old. If you’re looking to obtain a bronzed look before summer, Wilson says spray tanning is a great option and one dermatologists encourage. 

Sunscreen Application Matters
“If you’re only going to do one thing to protect yourself from skin cancer, wear sunscreen and apply it properly,” says Wilson. 

Even with good quality sunscreen, Wilson explains a high percentage of people don’t put it on properly. He recommends applying sunscreen on cool, dry skin 30 minutes before sun exposure. That includes all areas that will see sun, including ears, lips and scalp, which are the most missed places.

“If you stop and think about it, the sun is overhead, which means the lower lip is taking a beating, as well as your scalp and ears,” says Wilson. Often times, having a dry, chapped uncomfortable lip can mean sun damage.

Wilson also recommends using broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 40 to 55. Apply your sunscreen first thing in the morning and reapply every few hours, maybe even more, if you’re swimming or sweating frequently between applications. Wilson says spray-on sunscreen is convenient, but if you choose to use it, make sure you’re spraying close enough to the skin to ensure proper coverage. 

How Important Are Thorough Skin Exams?
“It’s extremely important with increasing age,” says Dr.Wilson. “At Cooper Clinic, we perform a little more than 5,000 total body skin cancer screens a year. In 2016, we had 191 skin cancer diagnoses. We found 372 atypical moles as well, which if not removed, had varying potential to evolve into melanoma.” 

Wilson says the skin exam at Cooper Clinic is about as thorough as you can get. “Here, a head-to-toe exam is our routine," says Wilson. "We’re looking everywhere, including the scalp, bottoms of the feet, underneath fingernails and toenails and even in-between the toes.” 

Since 2009, Cooper Clinic Dermatology has detected 1,292 biopsy-proven skin cancers. Of those, 94 were malignant melanoma. It’s estimated that over the last seven years, 115 to 120 lives have been saved by Cooper Clinic dermatologists through their thorough skin exams.

The education given to patients during their exam may be saving even more lives than doctors can calculate.“It’s important to note that we educate every patient we screen in terms of what to look for on self-examination,” says Wilson. “This has been proven by research to save lives for both the individual patient plus family members and friends.” 

When Should You Start Having An Annual Skin Exam?
Dr. Wilson admits it is difficult to give one specific age, as it can depend on a variety of factors such as where you live, family history of skin cancer, tanning bed use and sun exposure. 

He says dermatologists usually start seeing skin cancers on people aged 40 and older. That being said, there are certain genetic and lifestyle factors that could cause people to start developing skin cancer at a younger age.  

“Ten percent of melanomas are genetic,” says Wilson. “If you’ve got a strong family history of melanoma, you should start probably in your early 20s having annual skin cancer screenings.”

To learn more about Cooper Clinic Dermatology services including skin cancer screening, visit or call 972.367.6000.

Article provided by Cooper Aerobics Marketing and Communications.