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How to Stop Skin Cancer Before It Starts

June 04, 2021
A dose of clinical from FireFly Health

Let's Start With The Basics.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, both in the United States and worldwide. Some 5.4 million new cases are reported in the US each year, the majority of them due to ultraviolet (UV) light exposure. There are three common types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma, in that order. The good news? Most skin cancers are relatively easy to treat if caught early, and the most deadly form – melanoma – accounts for just 1% of cases.

Who gets skin cancer?

The short answer? Everyone. About 20% of people in the United States will have skin cancer at least once by age 70. There a few things that put you at higher risk, however, including:

  • Lots of UV exposure. Don't be duped into thinking that tanning beds are safer than natural sunlight, either. The fact is, UV radiation damages your skin — it doesn't matter if it's from the sun, tanning beds, or sunlamps. Exposure increases your risk of skin cancer, along with premature skin aging and eye damage. 
  • A personal or family history of skin cancer. If one of your parents or siblings has had skin cancer, you may be at greater risk. What's more, if you've had skin cancer in the past, you're at risk of developing it again.
  • Having fair skin. Skin cancer can affect anyone, regardless of their skin color. However, less melanin means less protection from the sun's rays. So — if you have blonde or red hair, light-colored eyes, and you freckle or sunburn easily — you're at a much higher risk for skin cancer. 
  • Having lots of irregular moles.  If you have lots of moles or abnormal moles (called dysplastic nevi), you're at increased risk for skin cancer. We'll get into this more below, but abnormal moles are generally larger than normal moles and may have asymmetrical borders. They're more likely to become cancerous, so keep a close eye on them. 
  • Being older. Due to cumulative sun exposure, your skin cancer risk increases with age. However, diagnoses are increasing in young adults, especially young women. After age 50, skin cancer is more common in men.
  • Having a weakened immune system. Your immune system fights off germs, but it also helps you fight off cancer. People with weakened immune systems — including people with HIV/AIDS or those who have had an organ transplant — are at a higher risk for developing skin cancer.

Stop skin cancer before it starts.

Skin cancer is common, but thankfully, we have the knowledge and tools (*cough* sunscreen *cough*) to prevent it. To protect yourself, follow these prevention tips all year round — not just during the summer.

  • Get your SPF on. You’ve heard it before: You’ve heard it all before: “Put on sunscreen before you go outside!” “Wear SPF every day!” But quite frankly, using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more, every day, is one of the best ways to prevent skin cancer. Be sure to reapply every two hours — or more often if you're swimming or sweating. 
  • Think head to toe. When applying SPF, don't forget these often-ignored body parts: lips, the tips of your ears, and the backs of your hands and neck. If you're going swimming, be sure to apply SPF under and around your bathing suit straps. They can shift and leave you with exposed, unprotected skin.
  • Remember: cloudy days don't keep skin cancer away. Unfortunately, clouds offer little protection from damaging UVA rays. It's important to protect your skin from the sun, even on days when it refuses to come out and play.  
  • Seek shade. For most folks in North America, the sun's rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Schedule outdoor activities for other times of the day if possible, even in the winter months. If you have to be outdoors during these times, try to stick to the shade as best you can. 
  • Cover up. SPF doesn't provide complete protection from UV rays, so consider wearing protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts and wide-brimmed hats. This is especially important if you work outdoors or spend a lot of time in the sun.
  • Shield your eyes. UV radiation from the sun and tanning beds harms your eyes, so don't forget your sunglasses.
  • Avoid tanning beds. We can't stress this one enough. If you absolutely need to get your glow on, consider a sunless tanner or spray tan. Trust us — your skin will thank you.

The signs of skin cancer.

Knowing the signs of skin cancer is an important part of prevention. And because there are different types of skin cancer, there are unique symptoms associated with each.

Basal cell carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma usually occurs on parts of the body that get a lot of sun exposure, such as your face, head, and neck.

What to look out for:

  • A waxy or pearly looking bump or pink growth
  • A flat, scar-like lesion. It can be either brown or flesh-colored.
  • A scabbing, bleeding sore that heals but then returns.

When to see a doctor:

  • It's important to note that basal cell carcinoma can look quite different from person to person. Consult a doctor if you experience changes to your skin's appearance, such as a new growth, changes to a previous growth, or a recurring sore.

Squamous cell carcinoma

Much like basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma usually occurs on sun-exposed areas of the body: face, neck, ears, and hands.

What to look out for:

  • A firm, red nodule
  • Rough, thickened, or wart-like skin
  • A flat lesion with a scaly, crusted surface

When to see a doctor:

  • See a doctor ASAP if you have a sore or scab that doesn't heal in about two months or a flat patch of scaly skin that won't go away.

The ABCDE's of Melanoma

When it comes to skin cancer, remembering your ABCDE's can save your life. Look for the signs of melanomas moles or skin lesions using these letters:

  • A is for asymmetrical shape. Is one half unlike the other half?
  • B is for border. Is the mole notched or irregular? Does it have scalloped edges?
  • C is for color: Is the mole multiple colors or an uneven color? Has it changed color recently?
  • D is for diameter. Is the mole larger than 1/4 inch? For reference, that's roughly the size of a pencil eraser.
  • E is for evolving. Is the mole changing in size, shape, color, or height? Are there or new signs and symptoms, such as itching or bleeding?

Watch out for the "ugly duckling".

Beyond learning your ABCDE's, be on the lookout for another warning sign of melanoma: the ugly duckling. The logic behind the ugly duckling method is that most moles on your body are the same or similar-looking to each other, while melanomas stand out like ugly ducklings in comparison. These ugly duckling lesions can look more prominent, smaller, lighter, or darker than surrounding moles.

When to consult your Firefly team

If you have questions or concerns about skin cancer (or want more information on how to prevent it), don’t hesitate to reach out to your Firefly team. Schedule a visit in the app today.

Not a member yet? Get started by signing up on our website or giving us a call at (855) 869-9284.