The sun shining brightly over a grassy field.

The month of May brings our attention to skin cancer. Summer calls for a variety of outdoor activities, such as afternoons at the ballpark, outdoor picnics, trips to the beach or just a day by the pool. As this season is quickly approaching, it is important to understand what skin cancer is and how we can prevent it while still enjoying those long, fun-filled days in the sun.

What is Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, with more than 3.5 million cases diagnosed annually. By definition, skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells that primarily occurs on skin that has seen excessive exposure to the sun or tanning beds. There are three major skin cancers: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. If treated early, the prognosis is usually not life-threatening.

Blake Phillips conducts an exam.

Know the signs and symptoms of skin cancer:

  • Signs of non-melanoma skin cancers include new red lesions that steadily grow, non-healing sores or crusted areas on the skin, bumps with a "pearly" or translucent surface, and any tender growths on the skin's surface.
  • Melanomas are darkly pigmented, discolored areas or bumps with an asymmetrical shape, irregular borders, or dark black or multicolored surface. While the majority of melanomas do not arise from moles, new or changing moles in adulthood should be examined.

"Over a lifetime, it's quite common for high-risk patients to develop multiple skin cancers on different body sites," says C. Blake Phillips, M.D., a fellow in the UAB Department of Dermatology. "That said, most skin cancers have an excellent cure rate if detected and treated early. I encourage learning the signs of skin cancer and self-exams between clinic visits. Patient awareness is extremely helpful in early diagnosis."

A woman sitting under a beach umbrella.

Dr. Phillips outlines several ways in which we can protect ourselves from the sun:

  • Wear protective clothing and wide-brimmed hats with sunglasses when out in the sun.
  • Use broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF value of 30 or higher.
  • Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours. Also note that "water resistant" does not mean "waterproof," as waterproof sunscreen does not exist.
  • When sweating or swimming, sunscreen should be reapplied at least every 2 hours or even more. Sunscreen can be rubbed off by a towel, so reapply after drying off as well.
  • Limit your direct exposure to the sun and seek shade, especially during the hours of 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. when UV rays are the strongest.
  • Avoid indoor tanning. Staying away from the tanning bed altogether is one of the easiest ways to avoid skin cancer, yet an estimated 11.3 million Americans engage in indoor tanning. In fact, more than 410,000 cases of skin cancer in the United States may be linked to indoor tanning.

It is important to remember that anyone with skin is at risk for developing skin cancers. "While less common, even those with heavily pigmented skin can develop skin cancer," says Dr. Phillips.

Talk to your doctor or visit UAB Medicine.