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Q&A: How to Protect Yourself from Florida's Summer Sun

Cancer Care
Author name: Lee Health


In Southwest Florida, the sun’s always in our eyes. Poor us. We get 271 sunny days, on average, every year. The U.S. average is 205 days.

Before you start gloating to your friends in the northern states, though, also know that Florida ranks number two in the United States when it comes to the total number of melanoma cases. That’s why you should get screened every year for skin cancer, says Dr. Manoel Moraes, a board-certified oncologist with Lee Health's Lee Physician Group.

In recognition of National Skin Cancer Awareness Month, Dr. Moraes answers our questions about skin cancer prevention and how to protect yourself during summer, when the risk of skin cancer rises dramatically.

Q: Why does my skin peel when I get sunburned, and what should I do about it?

A: Sunburn is an often painful sign of skin damage from spending too much time outdoors without wearing a protective sunscreen. Your skin peels because it dies, and dead cells slough off and peel. The best thing to do is not get a sunburn. I can’t stress this enough. If you get a sunburn, you should treat it with cold showers/baths, cold compresses and slather with aloe vera gel.

Q: One in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their lives, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. What causes skin cancer? Can it be inherited?

A: Most skin cancers are caused by environmental factors. Melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, usually affects people who have overexposure to sunlight. Also, in about 5 percent to 10 percent of people, melanoma can be caused by inherited genetic mutations. If you have a family history of skin cancer, you should let your doctor know.

Q: What’s the difference between non-melanoma skin cancer and melanoma?

A: Melanomas have the potential to be more aggressive and travel inside your body, needing more aggressive systemic therapy. The other two types (squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma) rarely behave in this manner.

Q: Can skin cancer be cured?

A: The key to curing cancer is to catch it early. Skin cancers are the perfect target for surveillance because it is easy to examine the skin. Typically, a dermatologist can examine your skin. You can also take a close look at your skin, head-to-toe, each month to spot imperfections, moles that have changed color, sores, blemishes, or other marks you haven’t noticed before.

Skin cancer often appears as a mole that has gotten lighter or darker, is red or ulcerated, or has changed. If you notice changes, see a physician who can give a complete assessment. Cancers such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma that are caught early can be treated on an outpatient basis either with a topical cream or superficial surgery.

Patients diagnosed with low-risk node-negative disease (Stage I and IIA) can be treated by removing the affected area. They have a primary tumor with low-risk features but no lymph node involvement. These patients have a high cure rate with surgery alone, and no preventive therapy is indicated.

Patients with high-risk node-negative melanoma (Stage IIB and IIC disease) have a primary tumor but no lymph node involvement.  They are at a similar or increased risk for recurrence and metastatic disease as a subset of those with Stage III disease. The decision to offer preventive therapy for these patients depends upon various clinical factors, including risks of recurrence and treatment-related toxicity, as well as patient convenience and treatment preferences.

The greatest advance in the treatment of melanoma was the discovery of the effectiveness of preventive therapy after surgical resection with immunotherapy instead of the old fashion chemotherapy, which was primarily ineffective.

Q: Does a sunscreen with a high SPF (sun protection factor) protect skin better than one with a lower SPF? How high should I go? What about lip balm use?

A: Sunscreens are assigned a sun protection factor (SPF), which is a number that rates how well they block UV rays. Higher numbers indicate more protection. You should use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher. The recommendation is to use a sunscreen 15 or higher to be effective. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays, too. Apply a thick layer of it on every part of your exposed skin.

Because sunscreen wears off, you should reapply if you stay out in the sun for more than two hours and after swimming, sweating, or toweling off. Also, check the sunscreen’s expiration date. Sunscreen without an expiration date has a shelf life of no more than three years. Its shelf life is shorter if it has been exposed to high temperatures.

And yes, lip balm is helpful if it is an SPF factor of 15 or higher.

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