Dr. Bob: Knowing the risks of skin cancer and melanomas

July 8, 2018 GMT

In the olden days, it was common to lie out in the sun for hours and hours. The deep dark tan it produced was a thing of beauty. Winning the white body contest was not viewed as a prize to brag about.

Over the years, we have learned a lot about what is beautiful and healthy. We have also learned about many things to avoid. Unprotected sun exposure and tanning beds are now recognized as a dangerous possible first steps to several potentially life-threatening cancers.

Currently, close to 90 percent of skin cancers are due to exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun and, to a lesser extent, tanning beds. This has led some health professionals to claim there is no such thing as a safe tan.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, everyone, no matter what their age, sex, race, or skin color is at risk of developing skin cancer. No one is immune.

That sunburn at 5 years of age, along with other subsequent burns is cumulative, meaning each adds up to possibly cause a wide variety of skin abnormalities, including life-threatening cancers later in life.


Skin cancer is the out-of-control growth of abnormal skin cells. Mutations caused by unrepaired DNA damage from UV rays can trigger skin cells to multiply rapidly and lead to malignant tumors.

The good news is that if caught early, especially in the precancerous stage, most can be treated and the odds of curing are very high. The later these abnormalities are discovered however, the more invasive the treatment and the more difficult the cure.

If you have any of the following traits, you are at increased risk of developing skin cancer: fair skin, blond or red hair/or light eyes. Freckles, many moles (50 or more) a personal or family history of basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma or melanoma, sun sensitivity, repeated sunburns — more than five doubles your chances of developing melanoma — or a history of substantial unprotected outdoor exposure. Outdoor workers, especially those with fair skin, have a high incidence of basal and squamous cell carcinoma.

It is wise to remember that these are merely factors that put you at increased risk and do not mean you are going to get skin cancer.

While pre-cancers and skin cancers are almost always curable when detected and treated early, the safest line of defense is to prevent them in the first place.

The Skin Cancer Foundation encourages everyone adopt the following sun safety strategies as part of a healthy lifestyle: seek the shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.; do not burn; avoid tanning beds; cover-up with clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and use UV-blocking sunglasses; use a broad spectrum (UVA/UVB sunscreen with a SPF 15 or higher every day.


In addition, for extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Apply 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) of sunscreen to your entire body before going outside. Reapply every two hours or after swimming or excessive sweating. Keep newborns out of the sun. Sunscreen should be used on babies over the age of 6 months. Examine your skin head to toe every month. If you see anything such as a new skin abnormality or any change in a wart or mole have it checked out.

The ABCDEs of melanoma are:

Asymmetry: Most melanomas are asymmetrical. A line through the middle would not create two matching halves. Common moles are round and symmetrical,

Border: The borders of melanomas are often uneven and may have scalloped or notched edges.

Color variability: Varied shades of brown or black may be the first sign of a melanoma. Moles are usually a single shade of brown.

Diameter: Melanomas tend to grow larger than a common mole.

Evolving: Any change in size, color or elevation, or a new symptom such as bleeding, itching or crusting may be a sign of melanoma.

As with all cancers early detection and treatment can make all the difference.