Skin Cancer Easy to Cure if Found Early

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skin cancerLaura Bush's skin cancer came with a classic symptom, a slow-healing sore.

That made it hard to ignore, a good thing: Remove skin cancer early, and it's easy to cure.

Better is preventing skin cancer, and key is protecting yourself - and your children, starting when they're tots - from the sun. Sunburns early in life are considered the most dangerous.

Too few heed that advice. Skin cancer strikes over 1 million Americans annually, and is on the rise.

The toll probably won't drop "until this generation that started using sunscreen in childhood grows up," predicts Dr. Clifford Perlis, a dermatologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

Between 1 million and 1.2 million Americans are diagnosed each year with basal or squamous cell carcinoma, the most common and easy-to-treat skin cancers, according to the American Cancer Society. Thousands more will have doctors remove sun-induced precancerous lesions called actinic keratoses.

Melanoma is the most lethal skin cancer, and strikes about 62,000 Americans a year. Of the estimated 10,700 skin-cancer deaths annually, almost 8,000 are due to melanoma. Yet if caught early, before it has spread, even melanoma is survivable.

Most at risk for all skin cancers are people with fair skin, difficulty tanning, or a history of excessive sun exposure. For melanoma, major risk factors include a relative with the disease and having lots of moles.

Specialists urge all adults to examine their skin regularly for suspicious changes, such as a new growth or change in an old one. What to watch for?

  • Flat, firm, pale areas or small, raised, pink or red, translucent or shiny areas may signal basal cell carcinoma
  • Squamous cell cancer may look like a rough reddish patch.
  • A sore that doesn't heal can signal either type.
  • Melanomas often arise as changes in moles. Any of the so-called "ABCD" warnings warrant a doctor check: Asymmetry, where half of the mole doesn't match the other half; Border irregularity, a ragged edge; Color, with different shades of brown, black, even red or blue; or Diameter, a mole bigger than a pencil eraser.

Key prevention advice: Avoid the most intense sun, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Cover up, with a hat, sunglasses and protective clothing. A white T-shirt is the equivalent of sunscreen with an SPF of just 6, Perlis cautions. Darker colors and tighter weaves block ultraviolet rays better.

And use sunscreen daily, not just at the beach. Choose a "broad-spectrum" sunscreen, that guards against both ultraviolet-A and B rays.

"Just walking to and from the car, you're exposed to the sun," notes Perlis.

Copyright 2006 Associated Press.

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