Don't feel the burn

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Cindy Maher keeps a close eye on her 3-year-old nephews when they're splashing around at Capaha Pool, and while they're in the sun. "If I bring them home with a sunburn, I'm in big trouble," Maher said. "They're slathered down, and I don't take their T-shirts off."

But Maher might be in the minority when it comes to proper sun protection. Many people put themselves at risk for sunburns and even skin cancer because they don't wear sunscreen or proper clothing while they're outside.

Colleen Burke, a manager at Cape Girardeau's Capaha Pool, knows that her job can be tough on the body.

"We're out in the sun for five hours a day," she said. "It's really important that we protect our skin, and we provide sunscreen for all of our guards."

Spending the day outside isn't the only time to worry about the dangers of the sun.

"Any time you have exposure to the sun, it damages the skin," said Lorilea Johnson, an advance practice registered nurse at Southeast Missouri Hospital.

Even minimal daily exposure to the sun can cause skin damage.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, and the number of new cases is expected to rise by 4 percent this year, according to statistics from the American Cancer Society.

Some adults may have a higher risk of developing the disease than they realize. People who had repeated sunburns as children are at a greater risk for developing skin cancer later in life.

Dr. Erin S. Gardner, a dermatologist at St. Francis Medical Center, said that children's exposure to the sun can set in motion factors that lead to the disease.

"Children are less likely to be diagnosed with skin cancer," Gardner said, "but the majority of a person's risk for getting skin cancer is developed before 18 years old."

Very young children and infants are even more sensitive to the dangerous effects of ultraviolet rays.

"It's a known fact that if you expose children under age 12 and especially under age 2, it causes irreversible damage to the skin," Johnson said.

The American Cancer Society does not recommend using sunscreen on children younger than 6 months. Instead, shade and lightweight clothing should be used to protect infants from the sun.

But it's not just infants and children who are at risk. Women ages 25 to 29 are being diagnosed with melanoma, a potentially fatal form of skin cancer, at greater rates than other members of the population.

"Skin cancer becomes more common as people get older," Gardner said.

There are three types of skin cancer: melanoma, basal cell and squamous cell. Basal and squamous cell cancers often develop on the face, ears, neck, lips and back of the hands. These types rarely spread to the rest of the body.

The physical signs of skin cancer include new or changing lesions, such as growths like moles that change in size, shape or color. According to Gardner, these symptoms, and especially lesions that are bleeding or grow at a quick rate, should send a person straight to the doctor.

Early diagnosis is key

Skin cancer can usually be treated on an outpatient basis, removing growths with supercooled liquids or with micrographic surgery, if diagnosed early enough.

"People who put off getting treatment are at risk of the disease spreading to other organs," Gardner warns. "Skin cancer spreads at a later time in the course of the disease, growing in a single site for months, but once it does spread it is usually fatal."

The American Cancer Society says that almost 80 percent of skin cancers could be prevented if people would take a few simple steps to protect their skin from the sun.

People looking for a safe way to stay tan shouldn't rely on tanning beds as an alternative. Studies now link these to an increase in melanoma cancer. Self-tanning products, like air brushes or sprays, are a better option because they give the skin the appearance of a tan without causing any damage.

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