When it comes to skin cancer and sun exposure, there is a lot of confusing misinformation out there. And it can put your health at risk.
Fact: If caught early, most skin cancer can be completely removed and cured.
Fiction: Once skin cancer has been removed, you are in the clear.
The hard truth is that cutting it out or treating skin cancer doesn't mean you've jumped the hurdle and are forever cancer-free. Once you develop skin cancer, you are at a higher risk for developing it in the future. While you may get a single instance of either basal or squamous cell carcinoma (BCC or SCC) that's unconnected to other developments, having skin cancer in one area means that the entire skin in that area was exposed to the same amount of UV light. And according to research in a 2013 McGill University study, having one instance indicates that the rest of the skin is still at risk for malignancies. The risk of melanoma can increase threefold.
It's also important to note that not all skin cancer removals are a walk in the park. This minor surgery can be uncomfortable, requires several weeks to heal, and leaves behind a scar that serves as a permanent reminder.
But what exactly causes skin cancer? Boiled down to the basics, it's a combination of your genes and your environment. Your genes determine your baseline susceptibility to develop cancer. Harmful environmental triggers, like UV light, cause additional damage to skin cells and transform them into unregulated cancerous cells. While you can't change your genes, you can change how you protect yourself from the sun. Broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30, combined with sun-protective clothing, hats, and glasses are your first line of defense. Avoiding peak sun hours (between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.) and seeking shade are also important. You can't undo past sunburns, but you can change your future by being smarter today.
So what can you do if you already have sun-damaged skin? Proactively make an appointment for an annual skin cancer screening. If your skin is badly damaged, your dermatologist also may talk to you about prescription creams that target the sun-damaged areas and clear the skin by destroying the harmful cells. The key to curing skin cancer is early detection. If you don't know it's there, you can't treat it.
This summer, take control of your skin health by exercising sun-safe behavior and getting a skin check—and then keep doing that every year! If you've had a skin cancer successfully treated, that isn't a free pass to take risks. Be vigilant in protecting your health. And of course, be sun-smart—because the only thing better than curing skin cancer is never getting it in the first place.