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Go Under Cover: Here Comes the Sun

June 21, 2007

Melanie N. Cross

Although the sweltering temperatures over the past few weeks would have you believe otherwise, summer officially begins today (June 21). And while you're planning those long weekends at the beach and those backyard barbecues, the Tulane Cancer Center reminds you that overexposure to the sun can greatly increase your chances of getting skin cancer.


Plenty of sunscreen and a floppy hat will help prevent overexposure to the sun this summer, but limiting time outside between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. is equally important, according to the Tulane Cancer Center. (Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)

There are some simple, preventive techniques you and your family can use daily to reduce your risk in the sun.

"Most people think about sun protection only when they are planning a full day outdoors, but exposure to the sun adds up day after day and can happen at any time," says Alan Lewis, associate professor of dermatology and the Tulane Cancer Center's director of Mohs micrographic surgery.

Participating in skin cancer screenings is a great way to take charge of your health, Lewis says.

The Tulane Cancer Center offered free skin cancer screenings to the public in May, Skin Cancer Awareness Month.

"Of 125 screenings performed last month, 30 patients had suspicious lesions and were scheduled for biopsies," Lewis says.

"Of those, 15 of these came back negative for cancer; these patients had non-malignant lesions that may or may not have required further treatment. The other 15 were positive for skin cancer, and two had malignant melanoma, an extremely lethal form of skin cancer that can be treated and cured if recognized in its early stages."

He adds, "Neither of these patients was aware they had malignant melanoma. They are very fortunate they were screened when they were. If these cancers had not been detected in their early stages, they could have developed into more invasive forms of the disease, which can be fatal."

Several of the patients who tested positive for less severe forms of skin cancer -- basal and squamous cell cancers -- were scheduled for Mohs micrographic surgery, a highly specialized outpatient procedure performed at Tulane and a few other medical centers in the United States.

During the Mohs procedure, the physician removes a thin layer of tissue at the bed of the cancer. This tissue is sectioned into very thin slices and examined under a microscope for the presence of cancer cells. If cancer cells are found, the doctor repeats the procedure in stages until no cancer cells remain.

"Mohs helps us to conserve normal tissue and therefore decreases the complexity of the repair, and it offers a higher cure rate than standard excision," says Lewis who completed an accredited Mohs fellowship.

The following steps from the American Cancer Society will help protect you and your family from the negative effects of exposure to the sun:

  • Limit direct sun exposure during midday. The sun's burning ultraviolet (UV) rays are most intense when the sun is high in the sky, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. 
  • Cover up. Wear clothing that protects your skin. Long-sleeved shirts, long pants and long skirts are most protective. Dark colors and tightly woven fabrics prevent UV rays from reaching your skin. Lewis adds there are special lines of clothing with UV resistant weaves made especially for those who have a history of skin cancer. 
  • Wear a hat. The ACS recommends a hat with at least a two- to three-inch brim all around to protect the neck, ears, eyes, forehead, nose and scalp. 
  • Use a sunscreen. Look for a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher -- SPF refers to the level of sunburn protection provided by a sunscreen. An SPF of 15 blocks out approximately 93 percent of the sun's UV rays. Apply sunscreen about 20 to 30 minutes before going outside, and about one ounce should be used to cover the arms, legs, neck and face of the average adult. Most sunscreens need to be reapplied every two hours; sooner if you towel yourself dry. Sunscreens are not recommended for babies younger than six months. 
  • Avoid sunlamps and tanning booths. Although many believe tanning beds are harmless, sunlamps and tanning beds emit UVA and often UVB rays -- both can cause serious skin damage and contribute to the formation of skin cancers. 
  • Check your skin regularly. Your chances of finding skin cancers early greatly increase if you examine your skin regularly. The best time to examine your skin is after a shower or bath. Check yourself in a well-lit room, using both a full-length and a handheld mirror. Become familiar with your birthmarks, moles and blemishes so that you can recognize changes. Signs to look for are changes in the size, texture, shape and color of blemishes or a sore that does not heal.

The Tulane Cancer Center will offer additional free skin cancer screenings later this summer.

Melanie Cross is the public relations and marketing coordinator for the Tulane Cancer Center.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000