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Outdoor Fun This Summer? Don’t Neglect Your Skin.

Eugene Ahn, MD Safety

As the weather gets warmer, we’re going to be spending more time in the sun. Whether at the beach, going to games or just enjoying the great outdoors, the longer we are in the sun, the more we are exposed to its ultraviolet (UV) rays—which can increase the risk for skin cancer. May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, a great time to think about the health of the body’s largest organ.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis in the U.S., yet except for melanoma, it is usually not included in most statistics about cancer rates in America. Although it can be life-threatening, skin cancer can be treated very effectively, and there are many options for this treatment.

Most of the time, skin cancer starts with the areas of the body that are most exposed to the sun, such as the ears, neck and face. If left untreated, cancerous cells will keep growing and will eventually damage normal skin. This is what makes prevention, early detection and treatment important.

There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are more common than malignant melanoma. However, all three should be detected and treated as early as possible.

There are six standard options for treating skin cancer, including surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, photodynamic therapy, biologic therapy and targeted therapy. Perhaps the most common treatments for skin cancer are surgery (cryogenic, laser, dermabrasion and Mohs) and radiation therapy.

Laser, cryogenic (freezing) and dermabrasion do not generally involve cutting the skin. All of these techniques are effective. A discussion between the patient and physician can usually result in a decision about what treatment would be the best for that particular patient and situation.

Radiation therapy is particularly useful in certain circumstances: if the treatment area is large, if the patient may not be a good candidate for surgery, or if the area being treated would be cosmetically affected or difficult to access by surgery (such as ears, nose, eyelids, etc.). Radiation is delivered from outside the body using a specialized machine for that purpose.

Several types of radiation are used to treat skin cancer. Superficial photons, for example, are similar to X-rays and are often used to treat small cancers of the face, ear, eyelids and nose—reducing unnecessary exposure of organs and other body tissues to radiation. Electrons are used to treat large, flat areas with extensive and/or multiple cancers.

High-energy photons provide deep penetration for radiating areas like the lymph nodes in the neck. High-dose-rate intensive radiation (HDR) is placed in the area being treated or within the body cavity that contains the cancerous cells. Local patients can find all of these options at a number of area centers that offer cancer treatment, including Coastal Radiation Oncology.

The best “treatment” for skin cancer is, of course, prevention—but that doesn't mean you have to avoid the sun altogether.

There are simple steps you can take to protect against—or limit exposure to—UV rays. One of the easiest is to remember the phrase “Slip, slop, slap and wrap!”

  • Slip into the shade of a tree or an umbrella, or slip on a t-shirt, rash guard or other protective clothing. If possible, plan activities earlier in the day, when the sun’s UV levels are lower.
  • Slop broad-spectrum sunscreen (at least SPF 30) onto exposed skin. Use about one teaspoon of sunscreen on each arm or leg. Don’t forget to cover your face, nose, throat and neck. Apply sunscreen 20 minutes before going outside, and re-apply every 60 to 90 minutes or immediately after coming out of the water.
  • Slap on a wide-brimmed hat to protect your head, neck, ears, nose and face.
  • Wear wraparound sunglasses that are close fitting, which will help provide UV protection for your eyes.

Make sure you use sunscreen on cloudy days too. Just because you cannot see the sun does not mean you are not being exposed to harmful UV rays.

So get out there and take advantage of our beautiful, long days of summer—just don’t forget to keep your skin safe while you’re enjoying your fun in the sun.

Eugene Ahn, MD, is board-certified in therapeutic radiology. He is vice president of Coastal Radiation Oncology Medical Group, medical director of Coastal’s Simi Valley Radiation Oncology Center, and a member of the medical staff at Simi Valley Hospital.