The #1 Thing You Can Do to Prevent Skin Cancer
Here’s why skin protection matters. Plus: Skin cancer signs to look for, and what we can learn from a former U.S. president about the importance of early detection.
May is the first of many signs that summer is coming. Warmer weather, light breezes, and summer breaks are quickly approaching. May also marks Skin Cancer Awareness Month — and for good reason. According to an article in Consumer Reports, ultraviolet (UV) rays can be “summer strength” by the late spring in many parts of the United States.
Skin cancer can happen when skin cells are damaged by UV radiation from the sun’s rays. This causes skin cells to grow uncontrollably and form tumors.
Did You Know?
“On the electromagnetic spectrum, UV light has shorter wavelengths than visible light, so your eyes can’t see UV, but your skin can feel it.”
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, affecting more than 3.5 million people each year. Fortunately, most cases of skin cancer are easily treatable if found early. However, undetected and untreated skin cancer can lead to more serious complications, as former President Jimmy Carter experienced.
In 2015, Carter underwent surgery to remove a small lesion from his liver. The lesion was actually metastatic melanoma, an aggressive type of skin cancer that had spread (metastasized) to his liver and brain.
This news was a shock to many, as Carter had always been known for his active lifestyle and good health. In 1982, he and his wife Rosalynn established The Carter Center to fight global disease, not knowing he would one day battle a disease of his own.
Carter’s battle with cancer became public shortly after his diagnosis. He quickly became an advocate for early detection and treatment. Carter encouraged everyone to get regular checkups, wear sunscreen, and take care of their skin. Soon his story made headlines globally.
Skin cancer is divided into 2 main types: melanoma and non-melanoma.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, accounting for a majority of skin cancer-related deaths. It can develop anywhere on the body but is most common on the face, chest, and back. Non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC) is split into:
NMSC is generally less dangerous but can still spread to other parts of the body if left untreated.
Tips for Skin Cancer Prevention
One key thing you can do to help reduce your risk of developing skin cancer is to limit your exposure to sunlight. Protection from the sun’s UV radiation is important year-round.
Sun Safety Tip
"Check the UV index every day. The higher the UV index, the more you should do to protect yourself from the sun."
When you are in the sunlight for extended periods of time, practice sun safety. Take simple steps like wearing protective clothing outdoors, staying in the shade during peak sun hours, and applying a high SPF (sun protection factor) sunscreen regularly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using an SPF of 15 or higher. And don’t forget sunglasses to protect your eyes.
Eating healthy is another step you can take. Research suggests that antioxidant-rich foods, including colorful fruits and vegetables, may help boost people’s protection against skin cancer.
Sun Safety Fact
"UV rays can reach you on cloudy and cool days, and they reflect off of surfaces like water, cement, sand, and snow. In the continental United States, UV rays tend to be strongest from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m."
Tips for Early Detection of Skin Cancer
The warning signs of skin cancer vary depending on the type and stage of the disease. Common symptoms include changes in the size, shape, and color of moles or other existing growths. The appearance of new growths or sores that do not heal, and itching or bleeding in a particular area can also be concerning.
If you notice any of these symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention quickly for a skin examination, lab testing, and possible biopsy if necessary.
It is also important to be aware of risk factors for skin cancer. These include:
- a fairer skin tone
- a history of sunburns
- a family history of skin cancer
While people with fairer skin tone are at higher risk, anyone can get skin cancer regardless of their complexion.
Did You Know?
Signs of skin cancer can show up differently for people of color. This can make it harder to notice signs right away. Read more in our guide Skin Cancer Among People of Color, or Cáncer de Piel en Personas de Color.
If you have any risk factors for skin cancer, consider scheduling routine skin exams with a dermatologist. You can also do monthly head-to-toe self-checks at home. Check all the surfaces of your skin. Look closely at your moles to see if they are beginning to change in shape, size, or color.
Follow the ABCDEs of skin cancer as a guide:
- Asymmetry: The shape of one half of the mole does not match the other.
- Border: The edges are often tagged, blurred, or irregular in outline.
- Color: The color is uneven. Shades of black, brown, and tan may be present. Areas of white, grey, red, pink, or blue also may be present.
- Diameter: There is a change in size, usually an increase.
- Evolving: Changes in size, shape, color, or elevation, or any symptoms such as bleeding, itching, or crusting.
Skin Cancer Resources & Support
Our research reveals that people with skin cancer may need additional support and information as they navigate the disease and treatment options.
For example, in our cancer experience registry survey, 49% of participants reported being not at all to somewhat knowledgeable about treatment decisions before making them. In addition, 73% reported being not at all to somewhat knowledgeable about financial impact before treatment.
If you are living with skin cancer, we offer a variety of resources to help ease the burden of your journey.
- Find more information and resources about skin cancer, including diagnosis, treatment options, and tips for coping with the disease.
- Connect with our Cancer Support Helpline by phone or online via our live chat service. Our experienced Helpline offers free navigation for cancer patients or their loved ones.
- Create a private support website where you can document your journey and receive support from friends and family along the way.
- Visit a caring and supportive CSC or Gilda’s Club location near you.
"My suggestion is find a [support] group if you haven’t, and if you have, participate. It is helpful."
— Lisa, diagnosed with metastatic melanoma
Jimmy Carter’s battle with cancer served as a wakeup call to many people, reminding us of the importance of skin protection and skin health. His message of prevention and early detection continues to resonate with people of all ages, and his dedication to improving cancer research and awareness has inspired countless others to do the same.
For Carter, one key to becoming cancer free just 4 months after his diagnosis was immediate treatment using radiation therapy and immunotherapy. His story is a powerful reminder of how important it is to address our own skin health and take steps to protect ourselves.