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The ABCDEs of Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in his life. Even more surprisingly, more people developed skin cancer between 1975 and 2006 than all other cancers combined.

The good news is most types of skin cancer are curable if detected early. Learn about your own pattern of moles, freckles, blemishes and other marks on the skin so you can notice changes during monthly self-exams.

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends an ABCDE check for melanoma skin cancer. Check your moles and blemishes for the following five characteristics of melanoma:

  • Asymmetry: The two halves of the mole do not match.
  • Border: The borders are irregular or uneven.
  • Color: There is no uniform color. You may see different shades of brown, black or tan. Some melanoma may also have shades of red, blue or white.
  • Diameter: Most melanomas are at least 1/4 inch (6 mm). However, it may be smaller when first detected.
  • Evolution: You notice a change in size, shape or color of a mole. Or, the symptoms change (bleeding, itching, tenderness, etc.).

The American Cancer Society recommends a cancer-related check-up by a physician, including a skin examination, every three years between ages 20 and 40, and annually for those 40 and older.*

Finally, a recent study found that people who experienced at least five blistering sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 were 80% more likely to develop melanoma than those without a history of burns. With this in mind, remember to limit unprotected exposure to the sun and wear sunscreen to protect you and your children from burns.

Choose a good sunscreen and apply it every day, 15 to 30 minutes before going out. When choosing sunscreen, look for the following:

1. An SPF of 30 or higher. The SPF, or sun protection factor, tells you how well the sunscreen protects your skin from burning UVB rays. The higher the SPF, the more UVB protection.

2. Broad-spectrum coverage. Look for this label to ensure your skin is protected against damaging UVA and UVB light. The Food and Drug Administration is currently considering adding star ratings, from 1 to 4, to rate a sunscreen's UVA protection. That change should make it even easier to choose your sunscreen.

3. Water resistance. With this label, you'll stay protected even while you swim or sweat. But remember to reapply after 40 minutes in the water or after towel drying.

Finally, always perform your regular self-exams. Spotting skin cancer early is half the cure.

*Check your benefits booklet to determine if your health plan coverage pays for this type of screening.

Sources: American Cancer Society; Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention; The Journal of the American Medical Association; The Skin Cancer Foundation. U.S. National Library of Medicine

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