May is finally here! A month full of sunshine! Full-blow summer weather just around the corner!
Who can deny the blissful feeling of the sun on your face? That beautiful bronzed glow we acquire by spending time outdoors in the summer? It’s arguably the most invigorating spirit of the season, if not of the year! It’d be hard to find anyone who wouldn’t welcome warm weather, soft grass, and copious amounts of bright sunshine after the winter we’ve had.
As you soak up your fair share of vitamin D from outdoor work or play, it is increasingly important to stay conscientious of exposure to harmful ultraviolet radiation. So important that May has been rightfully deemed Melanoma Awareness Month.
As someone who was diagnosed with the beginning stages of melanoma, I can testify to the sneakiness of this morbid disease.
Melanoma is a cancer that can go undetected for a long time—incognito as a mere freckle. By the time someone realizes there is something atypical with their “freckle,” the cancerous cells have likely spread to the deepest layers of their skin, often penetrating to blood vessels and spreading to lymph nodes.
The best advice I can give anyone is prevention. We should enjoy ourselves during the summer. We earn these moments when we’re out shoveling snow and slipping on ice. However, we can remove the concern and risk of skin cancer through a few simple preventative-measures.
Apply sunscreen. It shields harmful UV rays and can prevent premature aging. It also moisturizes, often smells great AND fights off those nasty sunburns leave you looking like a lobster.
Wear Sunhats. They’re effective and EXTREMELY FASHIONABLE, people!
Do NOT use tanning beds. That week-long, off-colored tan you acquire is NOT worth the lifetime of concern. Once you have been diagnosed with skin cancer, you constantly have to be on the lookout for another lesion appearing. Once you have it and (hopefully) get rid of a spot, it is even easier for another cancerous lesion to appear.
For me, I tanned a LOT in high school. I used tanning beds throughout long Alaskan winters to not only get color and vitamin D, but to serve as warm little mood-boosters. After about two years I stopped and never had an issue with cancerous lesions. Fast forward five years:
I spotted a dark freckle that had appeared on my abdomen and noticed that it grew in size pretty quickly. I eventually went to the dermatologist and asked for a skin check. The doctor did not seem overly concerned about my worrisome freckle, but she biopsied it anyway. The biopsy was sent to pathology and, about a month later, I received a call.
I had melanoma.
The news was surreal and only truly hit me a day later. It was terrifying to know that something was using my body’s own machinery to self-destruct. I was lucky to catch the cancerous lesion early, but there are an increasing amount of people who aren’t so lucky.
Avoidance is the ideal form of preventive medicine, but what if you’ve already spent a great amount of time in the sun? Lucky for all of us, skin cancer can be kept in check with the use of self-checks!
How do we determine worrisome lesions? Easy. Just remember your ABCDE’s…
A is for Asymmetry:
Look at your freckles and see if the spot looks the same on both sides – this is normal. If a lesion is asymmetrical (or not the same on both sides) when comparing one half to the other, you may want to consult your doctor.
B is for Border:
Edges should be even, smooth, and equal. If the edges are ragged or uneven, keep an eye on this spot.
C is for Color:
Color of a normal freckle should be consistent all over – if color is not the same all over or if it presents as different shades, ask your doctor about it.
D is for Diameter:
Look at the size of your freckles. They should be no larger than the end of a pencil eraser (six millimeters).
E is for Evolving:
This one is important! Watch your body – some spots will stay the same over time, and that is great! If you notice a mole or freckle that changes size, shape, or color, you need to consult your primary care physician or a dermatologist.
Use mirrors, a buddy, whatever you need to get a full and complete view of all of your skin. Do not forget hidden areas, such as your scalp, behind the ears and under your arms. Take pictures to compare over time – this is especially important for people like me who possess a LOT of freckles. Take a picture of yourself every 6-12 months and, over time, keep track of any abnormal spot progression. If you are ever in doubt, consult your doctor. It is always better to be safe than sorry.
Melanoma is one of the most serious forms of skin cancer, but there are many others. If you ever experience odd sites on your skin or feel enlarged, hard lymph nodes consult your physician. There are non-melanoma forms of skin cancer, like basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, Kaposi sarcoma (often of skin’s blood vessels, presenting as red or purple patches), Merkel cell carcinoma, and sebaceous gland carcinoma. Any firm, discolored, nodular OR flat lesion -- especially if it falls in one of the ABCDE categories -- is cause for concern.
YOU need to be responsible for your skin and your own health care. YOUR skin is seen most often by YOU, after all. I advise a self-check once every month. Keep notes of new growths, changing growths, or any spots that itch, bleed, change, or may not heal as they should – these are all alarming signs. And always remember that damage from one point in time may not present itself for months or even years.
If you have children, protect them! Young people and those with weakened immune systems are especially susceptible to skin cancer. Keep sunscreen on hand, invest in a cool baseball hat or a fashionable wide-brim and remember to cover up this summer.
Enjoy this sunshine! You earned it! But enjoy it responsibly.
At the end of the day, when the sun sets, you’ll be happy you did.
Osteopathic Medical Student - 1st Year (OMS1)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences