My dermatologist is as much a part of my preventative health care routine as my dentist or gynecologist. In fact, I see my dermatologist more than I see my primary care physician. I’m in her office at least once a year for my annual skin check, but it’s pretty common for me to go in at least one other time a year if I find a weird growth or change in one of my moles.
I am very pale, have lots of moles and freckles, and had many types of sunburn as a kid. Some burns were the severe kind with blisters and then dead skin that peeled away in sheets to reveal new, pink and tender skin. I had sun poisoning as a young adult after I missed a spot on my ankle while applying sunscreen. I am much safer now when I am in the sun, but the damage has been done. I am at risk for skin cancer. And according to a new study, women ages 18-39 are 800% more likely to get melanoma.
A 2019 American Academy of Dermatology study reports a dramatic increase in the rate of melanoma found in mostly Caucasian girls and young women. Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer and occurs when pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) mutate and become cancerous. Excessive UV exposure from the sun or tanning beds cause melanoma and other forms of skin cancer like basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). The study showed an increase in BCC and SCC skin cancers as well.
Yes, I mentioned tanning beds. Maybe it’s because I avoid direct sunlight or because I associate them with the ’90s, but tanning beds are a thing people still spend their money on. But part of the rise in the more than 400,000 cases of skin cancer each year in the U.S. is women’s continued use of indoor tanning booths. While this study by JAMA Dermatol showed an overall decrease in the use of tanning beds, it showed that women were more likely to use them than men (7.8 million versus 1.9 million). The American Academy of Dermatology also cited that, “Of the women who began tanning before the age of 16, more than half (54%) did so with their mother.”
People don’t see the harm, though, because there is a delay in UV exposure and skin cancer. Meredith Masony, popular blogger and podcast host of That’s Inappropriate, recently posted about her discovery of skin cancer after what she thought was an eczema patch.
In an Instagram post, Masony wrote this, “Remember when I told you I got checked by my dermatologist? Well, I have skin cancer. Yup. I’m 38 and I have a skin cancer on my scalp.”
Masony has been very open about the stage 2 squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) skin cancer she had removed and has used her platform to encourage others to check their skin often, especially if something new or strange pops up. The mark that showed up on Masony’s forehead was only a few weeks old and she is glad she didn’t ignore it.
She told Scary Mommy, “I have been vigilant about checking my skin for the past 10 years or so but this type of skin cancer that I had grew quickly—it wasn’t an existing mole. It was a brand new spot and it spread quickly…I almost didn’t go in to get it checked because I thought it was an infected zit or something.”
Thankfully her doctor urged her to see her dermatologist. Masony was diagnosed with skin cancer and had a full body and scalp scan. Within a couple of weeks of her initial dermatology appointment, Masony had what she calls a “pretty big chunk” of her forehead removed.
In another Instagram post, Masony urged people to, “Please wear hats, sunscreen, swim shirts, etc. this summer and any time you are in the sun. We never wore anything as kids and now I’m paying for it as an adult.”
I can relate to this so hard and it’s what scares me the most about my skin health. I wasn’t ever one to set up shop to try to get a tan—my skin just turns darker shades of pink—but my childhood was spent with summers at the lake, the public pool, or playing outside with little to no sunscreen. I applied it, but not often enough, and sometimes only added a t-shirt over my suit as protection. I didn’t know better, and I don’t know that my parents did either. Sunburns and the sticky aloe gel that went with them were just part of summer. Now they are a part of my risk for skin cancer. And that risk is why I have spots removed and biopsied from my body at least once a year. I have been lucky so far, but I am always on the lookout for suspicious marks on my skin.
After showing off her scar, Masony later added, “I’m sure some of you are tired of seeing the posts and hearing me talk about this, but skin cancer is serious and often goes unnoticed until it’s too late.”
The easiest way to prevent skin cancer is to limit UV exposure. Board-certified dermatologist M. Laurin Council, MD, FAAD, FACMS, suggests avoiding direct sunlight between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.; wearing protective gear like light-weight long-sleeved clothes, sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat; applying UVA and UVB water-resistant sunscreen with SPF of 30 or higher; and avoiding indoor tanning devices.
Dr. Council adds, “Some skin cancers are treatable with surgery, but others are more advanced and may be deadly. It’s important that we modify risky behaviors such as UV exposure to prevent the occurrence of skin cancer.”
Get your skin checked, friends. Make it an annual event and if anything new or strange appears, have a dermatologist take a look. I know we are all busy, but vigilance could save your life.