CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) – For Melissa Dean, being screened for skin cancer is important.
“I had a history of sunburns,” Dean said. “I grew up in South Carolina, and it was the custom to get a beautiful tan. So I would go out and get a beautiful burn every year, year after year as a teenager.
“Little did I know that it was cumulative and that when I got older that I would develop skin cancers from it,” Dean said.
Dr. Christopher Sayed, a dermatologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he sees this all the time.
“The average dermatologist sees more than 10 skin cancers a week,” Sayed said. “It’s a big epidemic that’s affecting the country right now and it’s increasing all the time.”
Sayed said that the increase is from a number of factors.
First, people are living longer, which gives more time for skin cancers to develop.
Second, technology has helped better detect skin cancers.
And also, there is a cultural bias toward thinking a tan is attractive.
“That results in people doing things like going to tanning beds or laying out, trying to get that initial burn every summer and thinking that it will be protective, but that is shown to be even more harmful,” Sayed said.
There are three types of skin cancers.
The first one is melanoma and it’s the scariest, because around 10 percent of the up to 100,000 cases a year are fatal. Fortunately, it is the least common type of skin cancer.
The two other forms of skin cancer – squamous cell and basal cell – are much more common. There are on average almost two and a half million cases a year – something that Dean knows all too well.
“I’ve probably had at least 10 incidents of basal cell skin cancer,” Dean said. “I’m now in my 60s and I had started having spots removed when I was in my mid 40s.”
Thankfully, if treated, basal and squamous cell cancers are not fatal.
Self-examination is important. Melanoma looks like an irregular dark spot that is on the skin. It is something that looks different than any moles that you might have. Squamous and basil cell come up as a small pink bump. Sayed said how long that pink bump lasts is the key.
“Anything that sticks around for more than a month, that doesn’t heal or becomes slowly bigger over the course of a few months always raises a red flag for me,” he said.
Fair skinned people are most susceptible to developing skin cancers. When I was a child and teenager, I spent a lot of time out in the sun and I thought I would tan. But I was wrong. All I did was burn and burn badly, and that has come back to haunt me.
Sayed said he has heard my story before.
“Your story is a common one, we see lots of patients who 30 to 40 years ago, people didn’t talk about sunscreen very much,” he said.
It is the damage done as a teenager that catches up and produces skin cancer later in life. Sayed said that generally half the population over 60 will develop a basal or squamous cell cancer in their lifetime.
It can happen younger, as it did for Dean and for me. I had my first basil cell cancer in my 30s. As, I get older though, the skin cancers have been popping up more frequently. In the last five years alone, I have had six skin cancer surgeries. These include my forehead twice, neck twice, scalp and torso. All of these cancers have popped up, because of what I did with sun exposure in my youth.
So, protection from the sun is key. To do this, watch your sun exposure during the peak sun of the day, usually from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you are going to be outside then, wear sun protective clothing. Doctor Sayed is a big fan of hats.
“I think hats with a good brim, so many get skin cancers on their ears that are really problematic and hard to treat,” he said.
The best way to protect is to lather on the sunscreen. That is however, something that some people find hard.
“The biggest barrier to sunscreens is that people don’t like to put them on every day, it’s a burden,” Sayed said.
Until a magic pill has been found, using sunscreen is your best bet. Studies have shown that not all sunscreens are created equal.
“When I’m looking for something, I’m looking for the thing that’s inexpensive, that has a high SPF number [30 or higher], with broad spectrum coverage; whatever it is that you don’t mind putting on your skin is my favorite,” Sayed said.
Dean now knows the importance of sunscreen.
“My children grew up having sunscreen put on them every single time they were in the sun, and they are still pretty pale people in the summer but they now have great skin,” she said.