Health Matters: Understanding skin cancer

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By Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD

While many of us think of skin cancer as something that happens to other people, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime. While skin cancer used to be more commonly seen in people in their 70s (a lifetime in the sun!), it’s turning up more frequently in people of all ages. Factors like tanning beds and prolonged sunbathing without sunscreen are known to contribute to the shift to younger ages.


When skin cells are damaged by UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds, it triggers genetic changes that can cause abnormal growth. That’s skin cancer.

Skin cancer can turn up anywhere on the body. While 60% are found on the head and neck, others can occur on arms and legs - and occasionally, on the soles of your feet!

Pay a visit to a board certified dermatologist for a yearly screening. You’ll learn more about your own body and can ask questions about any areas of concern. Among the potential dangers:

-Actinic Keratosis - a type of pre-cancer

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-Basal Cell Carcinoma – the most common type of skin cancer

-Squamous Cell Carcinoma – the second most common type of skin cancer

-Melanoma – the most dangerous form of skin cancer

The good news is that you can definitely lower your risk of skin cancer by following these easy guidelines:

-Use a broad spectrum sunscreen (UVA and UVB) with an SPF of 15 or higher

-Avoid sunburn

-Stay away from tanning beds

-Limit sun exposure between 10 am and 4 PM

-Wear a hat with a brim and UV-blocking sunglasses

-Get familiar with the moles and bumps on your body and look for any changes

Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD is NBC News Health Editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.