2007-04-18 / Seniors

Skin Cancer Alert

Dear Savvy Senior,

Can you write a column on skin cancer and how to guard against it as you get older? My father died from melanoma about 10 years ago (at age 59) and I don't want to follow in his footsteps.

Trend Breaker

Dear Breaker:

The best way to guard against skin cancer is to protect yourself from the sun, and if you're over age 40, get annual skin exams done by a dermatologist. Here's what you should know.

Skin Cancer

Each year, more than 1 million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer, most being over the age of 50. Skin cancer- mainly caused by ultraviolet light (heredity plays a role too)- is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Fortunately, it's also the most preventable and curable. While anyone can get it, those highest at risk are people who have fair skin and freckle easily. The different types of skin cancer are:

+ Basal cell carcinoma: The most common type and rarely if ever, fatal.

+ Squamous cell carcinoma: Rarely fatal, but can spread quickly and increase the risk of future skin cancers.

+ Melanoma: The rarest but deadliest form, it can spread to other organs if not detected and treated early.


Along with yearly skin exams by a dermatologist, monthly self-examinations are the best way to detect the early signs of skin cancer. Check your entire body, and be on the look-out for new growths, moles that have changed, or sores that don't heal. For self-examination tips and actual pictures of what to look for, see skincancer. org.

Sun Protection

Here are some tips and new products to help ward off harmful sun rays. And remember, it's never too late to start protecting your skin:

+ Stay in: When possible, avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the UV rays are most intense.

+ Use sunscreen: Be sure to choose a product that provides UVA and UVB protection and has a SPF (sun-protection factor) of at least 30. Sunscreen should be applied generously about 20 minutes before you head out the door, and reapplied every two hours, as well as after you've been sweating or swimming. (Tip: Johnson & Johnson and L'Oreal offer a new line of sunscreens that provide better protection against UVA rays. Look for Neutrogena and La Roche-Posay.)

+ Spray-on protection: Have you tried the new "continuous spray" clear mist sunscreens? They're easier to apply and reapply and less messy than the lotions you have to rub on.

+ Sunscreen foods: Studies show that some high-antioxidant foods (tomatoes, pomegranates, fatty fish, green tea and chocolate) can help prevent and repair sun damage.

+ Sun pills: A nonprescription sun-pill on the market, called Heliocare provides additional UV protection. The pills are intended to supplement sunscreen, and are sold at drugstore chains for about $60 for a bottle of 60 pills.

+ Cover up: Thick or tightly woven clothes can help prevent the sun's rays from reaching your skin. You can also purchase a variety of lightweight clothing and hats that offer maximum UV protection through the fabric they are made of. See coolibar.com and sunprecautions.com.

+ Wash-in protection: SunGuard laundry additive is another option that allows you to wash an invisible shield of sun protection right into your clothes. See sunguardsunprotection. com.

+ Monitor yourself: You can now buy UV monitors for around $30 to warn you when you've had enough sun exposure. You program them with your skin type, and the SPF of your sunscreen, and they'll calculate the strength of the day's UV rays and use that to count down the time you can stay outside safely. To find UV monitors go to www2.oregonscientific.com or atomixtime.com.

+ Sun shades: Wraparound sunglasses with UV protection can help prevent cataracts and macular degeneration.


The most common treatment for basal and squamous cell cancers and some precancerous growths is surgical removal. This is usually a simple procedure done right in the dermatologist's office, using local anesthetic. Other treatment options are freezing, chemotherapy creams, photodynamic therapy and radiation. Standard treatment for melanoma is also surgical removal. In advanced cases however, chemotherapy or radiation may also be used.

Savvy Tip: The American Academy of Dermatology offers free skin cancer publications, a dermatologist locating service and sponsors a free skin cancer screening program in communities nationwide. Call 888-462-3376 or visit www.aad.org.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.savvysenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the "NBC Today Show" and author of The Savvy Senior books.

The Gazette does not endorse the contents of The Savvy Senior. Check with professionals about the contents of this column.

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