Skin Cancer

This column is about skin cancer – about prevention and about early detection.

I am bold (and bald) enough to tell you that I have not picked this subject because my shiny scalp is devoid of bicolored locks, hence increased risk of exposure to the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays, but I think skin cancer is an important subject as we get into hot weather.

For my head shave, we were able to raise over $2200 for the Canadian Cancer Society – a big thank you to generous contributors who made the event satisfying and worthwhile.

Now, for $10,000 to the cancer society, I may be (I repeat, may be) tempted to get an ear ring, a nose ring and a tattoo on my scalp! A little advisory here – statement like this is not to be taken seriously and there is no need to call a psychiatrist. My head is bald but it is not out of place!

Anyway, we won’t discuss this any further. Let’s get back to our discussion on skin cancer.

There are two important things to remember about prevention of skin cancer: cover up and stay out of the sun, says an editorial in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

Skin cancers can be divided into two types: melanoma and non-melanoma. Non-melanoma skin cancers are: basal cell cancer and squamous cell cancer.

Experts believe that 90 per cent of non-melanoma skin cancers and two thirds of melanomas may be attributed to excessive exposure to the sun, says the BMJ.

According to Alberta Cancer Board publication (Cancer in Alberta, A Regional Picture – January 2003) non-melanoma skin cancers account for approximately 30 per cent of malignant cancer cases diagnosed each year among Albertans. It says that although these tumors are malignant, they are not typically life threatening and are usually successfully treated in doctors’ offices.

Melanoma accounted for four percent of new invasive cancers in Alberta in year 2000. In 1993, Alberta Cancer Registry adopted a new coding system to monitor incidence of melanoma. Since 1995, melanoma rates in Alberta have remained pretty much stable. In 1999, 194 new melanoma cases were diagnosed in Alberta.

In the Palliser Health Region, on an average 13 cases of melanoma are diagnosed each year.

For Canadian males, the incidence rate for melanoma has tripled since the late 1960s. For Canadian females, the rates have varied over the years but still shows a gradual increase.

In the United Kingdom and the United States the incidence of melanoma has doubled in past 20 years.

Melanoma is by far the most serious form of skin cancer, the survival rate is very high when detected and treated early, says the Alberta Cancer Board document.

To prevent deaths from skin cancer, particularly melanoma, the public has to be educated on two strategies: advice on early recognition and advice on prevention. Australia has done well in this regard. The incidence of melanoma has been falling in that country.

Can we achieve the same results in Canada?

By way of prevention: we need to keep reminding ourselves that skin tanned by ultraviolet radiation is damaged skin which predisposes to cancer. There is a potential risk of using sunbeds. We need to avoid sunburn and generally reduce exposure to ultraviolet radiation by staying out of the midday sun, wearing protective clothing, seeking shade, and applying sunscreen.

By way of early recognition: we should have moles or sun burnt skin surgically removed if they show signs of change or non-healing. Bleeding, chronic irritation, change in color or size should warn us to have these moles removed.

The BMJ article says that despite having a good understanding of the relation between overexposure to the sun and skin cancer, 81per cent of Americans still think they look good after being in the sun. Do you feel the same way? A good tan may shorten your life.

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