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Farmer says it isn't smart to take skin cancer lightly

Agriculture.com Staff 08/07/2007 @ 2:38pm

Pete Phelps loves the outdoors. His childhood on the farm, a Soil Conservation Service job, and retirement years as a full-time farmer all reflect his love of working in the sunshine. So does his skin.

Six years ago, the Ingham County, Michigan, farmer was at the doctor's office for a routine exam. Phelps asked about a spot on his forehead. "It was cherry red, about the size of a large thumbnail," he says.

The doctor ordered a biopsy. "He was surprised it was basal cell carcinoma," Phelps says. "I had surgery because if it spread beneath the skin, I might need major plastic surgery."

Basal cell carcinoma, the most common type of skin cancer, affects about 1 million people annually in the U.S. Lesions typically appear on the face, ears, scalp, and upper trunk.

Phelps didn't know at the time that he had a 40% chance of having a second lesion within five years.

"In 2003, I went back for a spot on my back, and they found another on my left forearm," he says. "Don't just hope that it will go away. Have a doctor look at anything suspicious."

Exposure to ultraviolet rays damages DNA in the skin. "If current trends continue, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime," says Anne Snider, a dermatologist at McFarland Clinic in Ames, Iowa.

She says people often don't take simple steps to protect their skin:

  • Limiting sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Wearing protective clothing, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses.
  • Applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30.

Men have a statistically significant number of driving-related left-side skin cancers on their arms, hands, necks, and heads.

Phelps plans to buy a hard hat with a back flap to protect his neck. Today he wears sunscreen regularly, but surveys show men are less likely to wear sunscreen than women.

Sunscreens with physical blockers like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide protect against both UVB and UVA rays. Sunscreens with chemical blockers now offer UVA protection.

"It's important to block both UVA and UVB rays," Snider says. "When sunscreens were first developed, the role of ultraviolet A in skin damage was unknown. Now we know that it's the main wrinkle-producing ray, and it also plays a role in formation of skin cancers."

Check expiration dates on sunscreen. For optimum protection, sunscreen should be applied 20 minutes before sun exposure. Reapply after one to two hours, or more often after swimming or sweating.

Squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common skin cancer, affects about 300,000 individuals in the U.S. annually. Melanoma, the most lethal, occurs in about 53,000. It can develop in preexisting moles, or be mistaken for a new mole.

New research suggests that people who develop basal cell or squamous cell skin cancers may have an elevated risk of melanoma.

One blistering sunburn in childhood is estimated to double melanoma risk later in life, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

The good news is that most skin cancers are highly curable. "Examine your skin regularly," Snider says. "Early detection is key."

American Academy of Dermatology
Box 4014, Schaumburg, IL 60618-4014
866/503-7546
www.aad.org

Pete Phelps loves the outdoors. His childhood on the farm, a Soil Conservation Service job, and retirement years as a full-time farmer all reflect his love of working in the sunshine. So does his skin.

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