FEATURE — Southern Utah offers plenty of fun under the sun – pickleball, cycling, outdoor adventures – all of which can leave you with a bright red burn across your skin at the end of the day. Sunburns are certainly not pleasant, but more importantly they can have serious consequences.
According to a 2009 fact sheet issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Environmental Protection Agency, about 45 Washington County residents were diagnosed with melanoma every year out of 500 statewide; Iron County incidences were in the same general range as Washington County.
More recent melanoma incidence by county during 2009-2013, derived from data provided by the National Program of Cancer Registries, the CDC and the National Cancer Institute, shows annual averages for new melanoma cases reported in Washington County at 53 and trending stable; in Iron County, 16 and rising; in other Southern Utah counties lower.
Salt Lake County to the north had the highest average in Utah during that period with 330 new melanoma cases annually.
Utah’s melanoma rate overall is 55 percent higher than the national average, according to the Utah Cancer Registry 2004-2013 report.
Skin cancer can often be prevented if you understand the risks and take some simple steps to protect yourself.
Revere Health Oncologist Dr. Joseph Te points out that “prolonged exposure to UV rays can damage your skin, regardless of whether you get a sunburn, and Utah has several unique factors that put its residents at greater risk.” These risk factors include the following:
- Most residents are fair skinned, which makes them more susceptible to sunburns.
- The climate gets warmer as you go farther south, and higher temperatures provide an environment for burning.
- Utah’s higher elevation also accounts for an increase of risk because there is less of the earth’s atmosphere to block UV rays.
Tanning, both indoor and outdoor, also poses a significant risk. Tanning beds mimic the effects of the sun by using UV light, which damages your skin. Excessive tanning causes skin to wrinkle and increases the risk of skin cancer. According to the Surgeon General, nearly 1 out of every 3 white women engage in indoor tanning, accounting for more than 400,000 cases of skin cancer each year.
Some other factors that may influence your risk of melanoma include:
- Family history: Around 10 percent of all people with melanoma have a family history of the disease.
- Personal history: If you’ve been diagnosed with melanoma before, there is a higher risk of getting it again.
- Weakened immune system.
- Age: Melanoma is more likely to occur in older people, but that doesn’t mean young people can ignore the risks; it is also one of the most common cancers in people under 30.
The good news is that preventing excessive sun exposure is fairly easy and inexpensive, and according to Te, most people already have what they need to stay safe. He recommended using hats, sunglasses and protective clothing (such as long sleeves) to limit the skin’s exposure to UV rays. Sunscreen is also essential and should be used any time you go outdoors. It should be SPF 15 or more – the higher the better – and don’t forget to apply sunscreen to your ears or cover them as well.
Limiting indoor tanning is just as important as limiting outdoor tanning.
“There needs to be more education on the skin damage UV radiation causes,” Te said. “Changing laws to limit people under 18 from using tanning beds is a good start, but education is what will really change behavior.”
Parents can start by teaching their kids the dangers of indoor tanning and to protect themselves from UV radiation.
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of melanoma is another important way to protect yourself, and for most people it’s something they can do on their own. When looking at moles and areas of your skin, follow the A-B-C-D-E rule to recognize potential risks:
- Asymmetry: One-half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.
- Border: The edges are irregular, ragged, notched or blurred.
- Color: The color is not the same all over and may include shades of brown or black, or sometimes patches of pink, red, white or blue.
- Diameter: The spot is larger than 6 mm across (1/4 inch); sometimes melanomas can be smaller, though, so size isn’t the only indicator of a problem.
- Evolving: the mole or patch of skin is changing in size, shape or color.
Other warning signs include the following:
- A sore that doesn’t heal.
- Spread of pigment from one spot into the surrounding skin.
- Redness or swelling beyond the border of a mole or patch of skin.
- Itchiness, tenderness or pain.
- Scaliness, oozing, bleeding or the appearance of a bump on the surface of a mole.
If you notice any of these warning signs, have your skin checked by a doctor.
If you are diagnosed with melanoma, your doctor will explain the diagnosis and treatment options available to you. Depending on the stage of your melanoma, you may go through one or more of these treatments:
- Surgery removes cancerous tissue, and you may require a skin graft depending on the size of the affected area.
- Immunotherapy helps the body’s immune system fight disease more effectively; there are several different types based on your needs.
- Targeted therapy blocks a cellular pathway and stop the growth of melanoma tumors; talk to your doctor about the one that is best for you.
- Radiation therapy uses x-rays and gamma rays to kill cancer cells, and is typically used for advanced cases of melanoma.
“Appropriate protection and early detection are the best ways to keep you and your family safe,” Te said.
If you have any questions or experience any symptoms of melanoma, schedule a visit with your healthcare provider.
St. George News Editor-in-Chief Joyce Kuzmanic contributed to this report.
- Revere Health Southern Utah | St. George Oncology Center, 2019 E Riverside Drive, Suite A200, St. George | Telephone: 435-628-9298
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