Lessons in sun protection shed light on skin cancer prevention

June 25, 2007
It’s a summertime sensation most have experienced, often in the name of vanity: Redness of the face, shoulders and neck with potential for fever, chills and blistering. But sunburn is no pretty matter, especially when it comes to skin cancer. “More than 90 percent of all skin cancers are caused by sun exposure, or ultraviolet light,” said Kimberly Edwards, MD, a Wilmington dermatologist. “Sadly, the number of new melanoma diagnoses – the most serious kind of skin cancer – continues to rise.” Add to that a study revealing only about a quarter of white adult sunbathers in the United States use recommended levels of sunblock, and it’s easy to understand why Dr. Edwards and her medial peers find it more imperative than ever to spread the word about sun protection and the reality of skin cancer. “We must educate from a very early age the importance of ultraviolet protection,” Dr. Edwards said. “The best protection is always provided by covering up: Hats, sunglasses, long-sleeve shirts and long pants. If this is not possible, we recommend proper use of sunblock.” “Sunblock should go on 30 minutes prior to going outside and reapplied every two hours,” she said. “It’s also important to find a sunblock that is water resistant and reapply after water exposure.” Sunblock differs from sunscreen in that the former contains metallic materials that reflect and scatter ultraviolet light, creating a wall between the sun and your skin. Sunscreen, while filtering ultraviolet light, still allows a certain range of it to be absorbed into the skin. Zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, and avobenzone are three ingredients that do an excellent job of blocking ultraviolet rays, Dr. Edwards said. A good sunblock should contain at least one of the three. “We need to teach people of all ages that getting sunburned isn’t cool,” said Cyrus Kotwall, MD, a surgeon at New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s Zimmer Cancer Center who specializes in cancer surgery. Changes in the appearance of the skin, especially moles, or suspicious skin markings, may be signs of skin cancer, he said. As well, repeated sunburns before the age of 18 greatly increase the likelihood of developing the most deadly form of skin cancer, melanoma. Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers, with more than one million cases diagnosed every year. It is divided into two categories – melanoma and non-melanoma. “The predominant skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma, with squamous cell carcinoma the second most,” said Kenneth Fink, MD, an oncologist at the Cancer Center. “Both are of the non-melanoma type, are non-lethal, and are treated by excision.” In contrast, malignant melanoma – when cancer develops in the cells that produce melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color – is much more serious, as it can quickly spread to other organs. “Melanoma is curable in most patients, especially if found to be in the superficial layers of skin,” Dr. Fink said. “If it is deeper when found, it may have already spread to other parts of the body, and has the potential to be fatal.” In those instances, residents of southeastern North Carolina have access to an array of modern cancer-fighting technologies through the Zimmer Cancer Center. “Through our excellent pathologists at New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s Zimmer Cancer Center we can accurately diagnose and treat a variety of skin cancers, including both non-melanoma and melanoma types,” said Dr. Kotwall. “We also have an excellent cadre of plastic surgeons here at the hospital that can help cosmetically and functionally restore the skin after the cancer is removed.” Still, the most effective treatment for skin cancer is prevention, Dr. Kotwall said. “Education about sun protection is key, especially in young children,” he said. “By taking steps to avoid overexposure to the sun, including covering up, wearing sunblock, and limiting exposure between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., you can greatly reduce your chances for skin cancer.”For a referral to a physician who conducts skin cancer tests please call VitaLine at 815.5188.