Brenda: Hi Dermdoctor. I’ve been seeing a lot of commercials that warn us about the dangers of sun exposure and its link to skin cancer, and it’s been scaring me a bit because I like to hit the beach during the summer breaks. I want to know what the realistic chances of getting skin cancer are. I just graduated high school, and I know that skin cancer mainly affects older people. Is skin cancer something that I should be worried about right now?
Dermdoctor: Hi Brenda. To answer your question honestly, the chances of you getting skin cancer over the next few years are relatively low because your cells are still young, and the chances of cancer-causing errors occurring are much lower than in older adults. However, sun damage that you take in now is more likely to increase the chances of developing skin cancer later in life. Additionally, skin cancer is not the only thing that you have to worry about.
Sun damage is a cumulative effect. Up to the age of around 30, cells recover quickly from damage, and thus visible damage like sun spots and wrinkles and mottled skin is relatively rare. Nonetheless, every instance of sun exposure builds up damage, which comes to the forefront and becomes visible later in life. Brenda, it’s good that you asked now because you are still young, and aren’t likely to have had too much sun damage so far, so even small changes in your lifestyle to protect yourself from the sun are expected to add many years to your skin health. Finally, sun safety isn’t a lifetime ban on fun. You can and should go outdoors, even to the beaches. It’s about balance and being aware of the dangers that overexposure to the sun can do.
- Sun damage is cumulative, and much of the damage that occurs is invisible beneath the surface. In young people, as the cells regenerate quickly and blemishes like sunspots and wrinkling will not appear until later, but the damage that causes these effects are occurring beneath the surface.
- Although skin cancer is more common in the elderly, young people are not immune to it either. The incidence of melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, is increasing at an alarming rate in people aged 15 to 30.
- Sun exposure damages the skin in many other ways outside of increasing the risk of skin cancer. Conditions that cause discoloration, such as freckles, sunspots, and melasma, are activated by sun exposure. Sun exposure also leads to premature aging in the form of wrinkles and dry mottled and elastic skin. These skin changes can quickly occur from age 30-35 as cell regeneration begins to slow.
- Proper sun protection habits are important to learn at an early age. Sun damage accumulates throughout one’s life. Having good sun awareness and making small lifestyle differences to reduce exposure at an early age will make a huge difference later in life.
- Staying in the shade when possible, applying sunscreens regularly, and wearing hats or long sleeves when you expect to be exposed are minor adjustments that can make a big difference over time. You don’t have to sacrifice fun to stay safe.
Julie: Hello Dermdoctor, I hope you are having a good day. My husband is very worried that he has skin cancer on his back. We’re both in our sixties, and sun culture was and is still prominent here in California. It looks like a patch of dry skin that has gone white, but it doesn’t seem to match the pictures that I see on the Internet. It’s in a location where it’s difficult for my husband to see it for himself. Can you give us some information so that I can alleviate my husband’s fears?
Dermdoctor: Hello Julie, I am having a good day so far, and I hope yours is well too. As for your husband’s concern Julie, I can´t alleviate your fears here because I can’t see your husband’s skin. It would be irresponsible for me to speculate based only on your description above. What I can do is advise you both to see a dermatologist have your skin checked thoroughly. Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, and as it seems that your lifestyle includes a lot of risk factors for skin cancer, I urge you to have your skin checked. Skin cancers are very common, but thankfully, they are almost always cured if found at an early stage.
- Sun damage accumulates throughout life. Seniors not only have a higher susceptibility to cancer in general but also have a more significant amount of cumulative sun damage through repeated exposure over the years and are therefore at a higher risk of developing skin cancer.
- People living close to the equator are at higher risks of developing sun-related illnesses like skin cancer.
- Those who have lighter skin have less melanin, which acts as a protective barrier against UV rays and are thus at a higher risk of developing skin cancer.
- If you are at high risk of developing skin cancer, we suggest routine check-ups at the dermatologist’s office.
- All skin cancers have an extremely high cure rate when found early, and thus early detection is so critical.
Brett: Hello DermDoctor. I’m worried about my moles. I’ve read that moles can resemble melanoma and that a delay in identifying melanoma can be extremely dangerous. Should I visit a dermatologist? Another general concern that I have is about the fear factor. Do I always have to live with the fear that a different mole might be cancerous?
Dermdoctor: Hello Brett. Moles can sometimes resemble melanoma in appearance, and in some cases, this can be problematic, particularly if the patient has many atypical moles. If you are worried about particular moles, visit a dermatologist to get them checked. The ABCDE of melanoma can provide some guidance in identifying possible melanoma: Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter, and Elevation/Evolution.
- Moles can sometimes resemble melanoma, and existing moles can sometimes turn cancerous.
- Young people are at a lower risk of developing skin cancer as the cells are less prone to errors. Another critical factor is that sun damage accumulates over the years, and young people have been exposed to the sun for lesser years. This does not mean, however, that young people are immune to skin cancer. The incidence of malignant melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, is growing in younger people.
- Remember that it costs little if you visit a dermatologist only to discover that you had a benign mole; it could cost you your life if you decide to ignore a suspicious growth for too long.