May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. Skin cancer, including melanoma, is the most common type of cancer in the United States. Melanoma incidence rates in Minnesota have doubled since 1988 for both males and females, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Ingrid Polcari with the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center and Medical School answers questions about skin cancer risk factors, treatment options and preventative measures people can take against skin cancer.
Q: What is skin cancer?
Dr. Polcari: Skin cancers are cancerous growths on the skin. Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers are the most common types and are often curable with surgery, but can also rarely spread. Melanoma is less common than other types of skin cancer, but it’s the most dangerous and can be deadly if it’s not detected early.
Q: What are the primary risk factors for developing skin cancer?
Dr. Polcari: Skin cancers are most common in sun exposed areas, which should tell you that the sun is a big factor! Sunburns and damage to the skin from cumulative sun exposure, including suntans, increase your overall risk of skin cancer. While your behavior in the sun is one factor, your genetic makeup is also important. For example, people with fair skin and fair or red hair have a much higher risk of developing skin cancer.
Q: What preventative measures can people take against skin cancer?
Dr. Polcari: The easiest way to decrease skin cancer risk is to protect your skin from the sun. Cover your skin with longed-sleeved clothing or swimwear. Wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your scalp and ears and sunglasses to protect your eyes. Seek shade — or bring shade with you — and plan outdoor activities when the UV index is low. Sunscreen is another way to protect your skin. Look for a product with an SPF of 30 or higher that is labeled as “broad-spectrum.” If you have sensitive skin, choose products with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. This is also the type I recommend to my youngest patients.
Q: What should people look for when checking themselves for skin cancer?
Dr. Polcari: It’s important to examine your own skin and get to know what’s there, so you’re able to detect new growths on the skin or changes in growths that have always been there. Basal cell cancer usually shows up as a shiny bump. Squamous cell cancer typically is a rough or scaly spot that persists. Melanomas are brown or pink growths that arise on normal skin or within an existing mole.
Q: What are you doing to advance skin cancer research?
Dr. Polcari: My research focuses on understanding how we can improve sun protection starting early in childhood to prevent skin cancer development later in life. I am hopeful that during my career we will see the skin cancer statistics start to trend in the right direction: down!
Ingrid Polcari is an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School and a Masonic Cancer Center member. Her areas of expertise include dermatology, specifically photoprotection and skin cancer prevention.