May 9, 2014 at 8:43 AM ET
According to the National Cancer Institute, there will be an estimated 76,100 people who are diagnosed with melanoma of the skin this year. But here’s the promising news — through early detection and treatment, many skin cancers are curable. And, with the right education, many can even be avoided.
So, how well informed are you? See if you can guess which of these common skin-cancer myths are fact, and which are fiction.
1. All sunscreens are created equal
Not exactly, since many dermatologists are now recommending a sunscreen that is labeled SPF 30, says Dr. Marcy Street, a board certified dermatologist who is also CEO and Medical Director at Doctor’s Approach Dermatology and Skin Cancer Center in Okemos, Mich. “I tell my patients to put on the SPF 30 about 15 to 20 minutes before heading outside, and then to reapply it every hour-and-a-half to two hours.” Street emphasizes the importance of the reapplication, especially when spending a period of time in the sun (i.e. going for a walk, watching a ball game, dining at an outdoor café). “Nothing lasts all day — even if you put on a sunscreen that’s SPF 100,” she states. On the days when your sun exposure consists of hopping in and out of the car, Street says SPF 15 is “adequate.” Also, make sure to purchase products that say “broad-spectrum,” which means they block both UVA and UVB rays
2. Women are more prone to skin cancer
Sorry guys, but new research published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology states that single men of all ages, regardless of their education or location, are more likely to die of cutaneous malignant melanoma, the most aggressive form of skin cancer. The most likely reason: there's no one encouraging these men to meet with a dermatologist.
3. Only those with fair skin should be extra-cautious in the sun
It’s true — people with light hair and light eyes are more likely to develop skin cancer, but Street says the risk factors are multifactorial. “You also need to determine genetic predisposition, along with how much sun exposure you’ve had over your lifetime and how many sunburns you’ve had over your lifetime.” Keep in mind that burns from other sources — the stove, the curling iron, as well as chemical burns on the scalp from hair treatments — also increase your chances. Street adds that contrary to popular belief, people of color can also be diagnosed with this disease. In many cases, melanoma appears in people of color as dark or bruise-like spots on the palms of the hands, soles of feet or under the fingernails.
4. Skin cancer can only be found on the skin
Believe it or not, skin cancer can be found in other places. “Skin cancer can occur in mucous membranes such as in the mouth, sinuses and eyes,” says Street. While basal cell carcinoma (which usually looks like open sores or red patches) tend to be appear in sun-damaged areas, squamous cell carcinoma (which can resemble scaly red patches or warts that may crust or bleed) can appear on any part of the body, including inside the mouth and on the genitals.
In order to protect yourself, make it a point to have regular screening exams from your dermatologist, as well as your dentist and eye doctor. And stop with the self-diagnosing — Street stresses the importance of allowing an educated eye to examine any unusual spots or discolorations. “Dermatologists are trained clinicians,” she explains. “We had to look at hundreds of pictures for our board exams, which is why we can diagnose with our eyes.”
5. The only way to determine skin cancer is from a biopsy
While a biopsy is still the definitive way to diagnose skin cancer, there’s a new medical device on the market called MelaFind ® that is making headlines. “It’s a non-invasive, surgery-free way that has higher sensitivity to detect if a mole is atypical or melanoma through a series of computerized benchmarks,” says Street. She says this device, which uses 10 different wavelengths to see up to 2.5 millimeters below the surface of the skin, is ideal for patients who fall under a grey zone since the machine can determine the irregular growth patterns of moles. Even better, this FDA-approved and clinically-tested scan offers immediate results. Before your next exam, you may want to ask your dermatologist if he/she has use of this machine and if it’s covered under your insurance.