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Posted May 26, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Protect yourself: Skip the sun this summer to reduce risk of skin cancer

Dr. Stephen Flax of Dermatology Associates in Winchester
Dr. Stephen Flax of Dermatology Associates in Winchester explains about different types of skin cancers. Dennis Grundman/Daily

example of skin cancer
A brochure shows an example of one of the most common types of skin cancer. Dennis Grundman/Daily

device that measures skin cancers
A device is used to measure the size of skin cancers. Dennis Grundman/Daily

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By Alex Bridges -- abridges@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- Summer sun can bring on golden tans, but also a greater chance of skin cancer, experts warn.

"It's really an epidemic," said Dr. Stephen Flax, with Winchester Dermatology on Amherst Street. "The statistic is that it's estimated that one in five Americans will develop some type of skin cancer over the course of their life."

Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most common types of skin cancer. They arise within the top layer of the skin and usually appear on sun-exposed areas of the body, including the face, forearms and neck, as a scaly area or bump that persists and bleeds, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

"So we see basal cells virtually every day at our practice," Flax said, adding he personally sees about 500 a year.

These types of cancer have a better than 95 percent cure rate, according to the academy information.

Melanoma is the least common but most deadly type of skin cancer. It can appear without warning but may also develop from or near a mole. The disease is found most frequently in men age 50 and older. While it can occur anywhere on the body, it most commonly is found on the upper backs of men and woman and on the legs of women.

Melanoma's tendency to spread makes early detection and treatment essential, experts advise. Flax said the seriousness of a melanoma depends on how deeply it invades the skin.

Statistics show one American dies every 62 minutes from melanoma, Flax said.

Other statistics show the danger of melanoma:

* Invasive melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in men and women

* More than 75 percent of skin cancer deaths are from melanoma

* Melanoma is the second most common cancer in women ages 20-29

* Five or more sunburns double a person's risk of developing skin cancer

"The World Health Organization estimates that as many as 65,000 people a year worldwide die from the effects of too much sun, mostly from malignant skin cancer," according to the academy information.

While exposure to sunlight increases the risk of developing the disease, even strong sunblock may not always protect a person from getting skin cancer, according to Flax.

"Sun exposure is only one of the factors involved in the development of melanoma, but it's the most important and the most preventable risk factor for melanoma," Flax said.

Hereditary genetic factors may influence whether a person gets skin cancer such as melanoma, he explained. Not everyone who tans or sunbathes regularly may come down with the disease, Flax said.

"Sun isn't the only cause," the doctor added. "People get melanomas on the bottoms of their feet. You get melanomas on places that you don't see the sun at all."

People who don't regularly tan or see much sun are often surprised by a diagnosis of melanoma, Flax said.

A person's skin color also plays into whether they may be diagnosed with melanoma or other type of cancer, Flax said. People with fair complexions may stand the greatest risk of having skin cancer; dark-skinned Africans have a lesser chance, but some cases have occurred, Flax said.

"All skin cancers, but especially melanoma, are curable if they're detected early," the doctor said.

But once the disease has started to metastasize or spread, possibly to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body, the treatment options are less effective. Melanoma is not responsive to chemotherapy or radiation, he said.

To prevent skin cancer of any type, experts advise using protection from ultraviolet rays in sunlight. Flax recommends people stay out of direct sunlight between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If going on the beach, he suggests doing so early or late in the day.

"What I always tell people is physical protection is much better than chemical protection," Flax said. "What I mean by that is, staying out of the sun, staying in the shade. If you're going to be in the sun, wearing a hat."

"If you're going to be out playing golf or gardening, wear a broad-rimmed hat that not only helps your face and your nose but protects your ears and the back of your neck," Flax said.

The dermatologist mentioned that clothing designed with SPF block also can help protect from ultraviolet rays.

Chemical protection such as sunscreen, known as a physical blocker because it reflects light from the skin, also helps to a certain extent. The two types are zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

He recommends a sunscreen with SPF 30, though a higher number can offer some more protection but tends to be thicker. A sunscreen of SPF 60 is harder to absorb into the skin, he said.

Newer kinds of chemical blockers can stop the two types of ultraviolet light.

"I think it's important to realize sunscreens are not 100 percent protective," Flax said. "Just because you put sunscreen on doesn't mean, 'Oh, I can stay out in the sun four hours because I've got sunscreen on.'"

The doctor said he puts on sunscreen before golfing.

"Even then I still get a farmer's tan," Flax said.

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