Skin Cancer

What is Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissue of the skin. Skin cancer can occur anywhere on the body. The skin has several layers; the two main ones are the epidermis (upper or outer layer) and the dermis (lower or inner layer). Skin cancer begins in the epidermis, which is made up of three kinds of cells: squamous, (thin and flat cells forming the top of the epidermis); basal (round cells that are the middle layer of the epidermis) and melanocytes (the bottom layer of the epidermis). The melanocytes give skin its color and cause the skin to darken when exposed to the sun. Skin cancer is the most commonly occurring cancer with over one million cases a year.

Is There More Than One Type of Skin Cancer?

There are three kinds of skin cancer: squamous, basal and melanoma. Melanoma is a form of skin cancer that begins in melanocytes (the cells that make the pigment melanin). Melanoma usually begins in a mole. Because melanoma tends to rapidly spread to other organs, it causes most skin cancer deaths, even though it currently accounts for only 4% of skin cancer cases. An estimated 8000 people die annually of melanoma. The number of new cases of melanoma in the US is on the rise and melanoma is the most common cancer in young women aged 25-29. (For more information on skin cancer, visit the National Cancer Institute's Web site.)

What Causes Skin Cancer?

The exact cause of skin cancer is not known, but we do know that certain risk factors are linked to the disease. Too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the main risk factor for skin cancer. Some physical characteristics, including having light skin that burns and freckles easily and having naturally red or blond hair, also increase the risk of developing skin cancer.

Once My Sunburn or Tan Fades is there Still a Risk of Developing Skin Cancer?

Sunburned or tanned skin is damaged skin. Most of a person's lifetime skin damage, which increases the risk for skin cancer, occurs before the age of 18. Therefore, even if a child's sunburn or tan fades, the damage caused by that tan or burn does not and the effects cannot be reversed. The damage keeps adding up with each sunburn or tan and may one day result in skin cancer. So, it is important that both children and adults protect their skin.

How Can Skin Cancer be Prevented?

Reducing behaviors that can cause skin cancer may lower your chance of developing the disease. Therefore, you should avoid unnecessary unprotected exposure to the sun and artificial sources of UV light, such as tanning booths or sun lamps. When you are in the sun, protect yourself by following these simple measures:
  • Cover your head with a wide brimmed hat. Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants whenever possible.
  • Use a sunscreen labeled "broad-spectrum" with a sun protection factor (SPF) rating of 15 or higher. SPF 15 blocks out 93% of UV rays, while an SPF 30 blocks out 97% of UV rays.
  • Apply the sunscreen to dry skin 15-30 minutes before going outdoors and again after swimming or perspiring.
  • One ounce of sunscreen, enough to fill a shot glass, is considered the amount needed to completely cover the exposed areas of the body.
  • Avoid direct sun at midday, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun's rays are strongest.

Do I Have to Worry About Sun Exposure on Cloudy Days?

Clouds do not block most UV rays; therefore you should use sunscreen and cover up your skin in order to protect yourself even on cloudy days.

What is the New York State Department of Health Doing About Skin Cancer?

The NYSDOH has developed brochures, posters and media displays related to skin cancer. The agency is partnering with selected elementary schools across the state to promote their participation in its skin cancer prevention efforts. Schools can play a vital role in helping prevent skin cancer since children spend a large amount of the sun's peak hours at school. NYSDOH is working to create school environments that promote sun safety and help prevent skin cancer. In addition, in response to a new law, NYSDOH is partnering with the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to provide skin cancer prevention information to visitors at state parks and historic sites.

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