Skin cancer runs in my husband Barry’s family. He has had several lesions removed, frozen, or burned off over the years. Fortunately, all have been either precancerous areas called actinic keratoses or basal cell carcinomas, which are easily treated. He has all the risk factors.
Risk factors for skin cancer
- Light-colored skin, hair, and eyes — that’s my Barry
- Family history — yes
- Age—non melanoma skin cancers are more common after age 40 — he passed that milestone a while ago
- Sun exposure — he loves the sun
Barry slathers on the sunscreen, so the new FDA guidelines for rating and labeling sunscreen caught the family’s attention. If you want to protect yourself against skin cancer, you not only need a sunscreen with a skin protective factor or SPF of 15 or higher, you also need one that is broad-spectrum. Broad-spectrum means that it protects against two types of ultraviolet radiation — UVB rays, which burn your skin, and UVA rays, which cause skin cancer and premature aging of the skin.
New FDA sunscreen guidelines
- In order to claim that a sunscreen protects against skin cancer, it must be at least SPF-15 and must protect against UVB and UVA. If the claim can’t be made, a warning must be added to the label: “This product has not been shown to prevent skin cancer or premature skin aging.”
- No sunscreen is really waterproof so only the term water-resistant can be used and only if studies prove that the product retains its value after being exposed to water.
- The term sunblock can no longer be used, because no sunscreen can completely block the sun.
Back to Barry
He sees the dermatologist regularly, and we are always on the lookout for signs of skin cancer. Usually it will be a “little place that has become red or a tiny sore that won’t heal.” Those are typical signs of basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer. The other major types are squamous cell and melanoma, melanoma being the most serious form of skin cancer.
- Persistent open sore that won’t heal
- Reddish patch or irritated area that may be crusty
- Shiny bump
- Pink growth with elevated border and crusted indentation in the center
- Scar-like area
- Persistent red scaly patch
- Elevated growth with depression in the center
- Sore that bleeds and crusts and doesn’t heal
- Wart-like growth
- Mole with asymmetrical shape
- Uneven borders
- Variety of colors
- Larger than pencil eraser
Triggering the immune system to fight against skin cancer
About five years ago, instead of removing a suspicious area, our dermatologist prescribed a cream with the brand name Aldara (imiquimod), which Barry has used many times since. It works by triggering the immune system, which in turn activates the molecule interferon-alpha to fight the pre-cancerous or cancerous cells. Treatment lasts four to six weeks and as it progresses, the area can look pretty angry. It also often grows beyond the original site. We see the latter as a good thing, because it means his immune system is attacking pre-cancerous cells we didn’t even know were there. He doesn’t like how it looks during the treatment, but told me “I have peace of mind because I get a sense that I’ve prevented something from becoming worse.”
I want to thank Barry for allowing me to show the picture of him during his treatment. He’s a good man.
If anything is to be learned from his willingness to share his story it is that early detection is key. If you have something suspicious looking on your skin, don’t hesitate to get it checked out. Your best defense against skin cancer is to prevent it in the first place. If you’re a sun worshiper like Barry, don’t forget to protect yourself with sunscreen — full-spectrum and at least SPF-15.