The #1 Thing You Can Do to Prevent Skin Cancer

Photo by Loren Biser for Unsplash

Here’s why skin protection matters. Plus: Skin cancer signs to look for, and what we can learn from a former U.S. president about the importance of early detection.

 

May is the first of many signs that summer is coming. Warmer weather, light breezes, and summer breaks are quickly approaching. May also marks Skin Cancer Awareness Month — and for good reason. According to an article in Consumer Reports, ultraviolet (UV) rays can be “summer strength” by the late spring in many parts of the United States.

Skin cancer can happen when skin cells are damaged by UV radiation from the sun’s rays. This causes skin cells to grow uncontrollably and form tumors.

Did You Know?

“On the electromagnetic spectrum, UV light has shorter wavelengths than visible light, so your eyes can’t see UV, but your skin can feel it.”

— “UV Radiation & Your Skin,” Skin Cancer Foundation

 

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, affecting more than 3.5 million people each year. Fortunately, most cases of skin cancer are easily treatable if found early. However, undetected and untreated skin cancer can lead to more serious complications, as former President Jimmy Carter experienced.

In 2015, Carter underwent surgery to remove a small lesion from his liver. The lesion was actually metastatic melanoma, an aggressive type of skin cancer that had spread (metastasized) to his liver and brain.

This news was a shock to many, as Carter had always been known for his active lifestyle and good health. In 1982, he and his wife Rosalynn established The Carter Center to fight global disease, not knowing he would one day battle a disease of his own.

Carter’s battle with cancer became public shortly after his diagnosis. He quickly became an advocate for early detection and treatment. Carter encouraged everyone to get regular checkups, wear sunscreen, and take care of their skin. Soon his story made headlines globally.

Skin cancer is divided into 2 main types: melanoma and non-melanoma.

Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, accounting for a majority of skin cancer-related deaths. It can develop anywhere on the body but is most common on the face, chest, and back. Non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC) is split into:

NMSC is generally less dangerous but can still spread to other parts of the body if left untreated.

What treatments are available for advanced non-melanoma skin cancer? This 2-minute video explains.
Tips for Skin Cancer Prevention

One key thing you can do to help reduce your risk of developing skin cancer is to limit your exposure to sunlight. Protection from the sun’s UV radiation is important year-round.

 

Sun Safety Tip

“Check the UV index every day. The higher the UV index, the more you should do to protect yourself from the sun.”

— “UV Safety,” National Weather Service

 

When you are in the sunlight for extended periods of time, practice sun safety. Take simple steps like wearing protective clothing outdoors, staying in the shade during peak sun hours, and applying a high SPF (sun protection factor) sunscreen regularly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using an SPF of 15 or higher. And don’t forget sunglasses to protect your eyes.

The Skin Cancer Foundation offers a comprehensive list of sun protection tips. 

Eating healthy is another step you can take. Research suggests that antioxidant-rich foods, including colorful fruits and vegetables, may help boost people’s protection against skin cancer.

 

Sun Safety Fact

“UV rays can reach you on cloudy and cool days, and they reflect off of surfaces like water, cement, sand, and snow. In the continental United States, UV rays tend to be strongest from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.”

— “Sun Safety,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Tips for Early Detection of Skin Cancer

The warning signs of skin cancer vary depending on the type and stage of the disease. Common symptoms include changes in the size, shape, and color of moles or other existing growths. The appearance of new growths or sores that do not heal, and itching or bleeding in a particular area can also be concerning.

If you notice any of these symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention quickly for a skin examination, lab testing, and possible biopsy if necessary.

In this 2-minute video, Lynn Schuchter, M.D., offers tips to detect melanoma early. 

It is also important to be aware of risk factors for skin cancer. These include:

  • a fairer skin tone
  • a history of sunburns
  • a family history of skin cancer

While people with fairer skin tone are at higher risk, anyone can get skin cancer regardless of their complexion.

 

Did You Know? 

Signs of skin cancer can show up differently for people of color. This can make it harder to notice signs right away. Read more in our guide Skin Cancer Among People of Color, or Cáncer de Piel en Personas de Color.

 

If you have any risk factors for skin cancer, consider scheduling routine skin exams with a dermatologist. You can also do monthly head-to-toe self-checks at home. Check all the surfaces of your skin. Look closely at your moles to see if they are beginning to change in shape, size, or color.

Follow the ABCDEs of skin cancer as a guide:

  • Asymmetry: The shape of one half of the mole does not match the other.
  • Border: The edges are often tagged, blurred, or irregular in outline.
  • Color: The color is uneven. Shades of black, brown, and tan may be present. Areas of white, grey, red, pink, or blue also may be present.
  • Diameter: There is a change in size, usually an increase.
  • Evolving: Changes in size, shape, color, or elevation, or any symptoms such as bleeding, itching, or crusting.

The Skin Cancer Foundation provides detailed instructions on how to do a skin check.

 

Skin Cancer Resources & Support

Our research reveals that people with skin cancer may need additional support and information as they navigate the disease and treatment options.

For example, in our cancer experience registry survey, 49% of participants reported being not at all to somewhat knowledgeable about treatment decisions before making them. In addition, 73% reported being not at all to somewhat knowledgeable about financial impact before treatment.

If you are living with skin cancer, we offer a variety of resources to help ease the burden of your journey.

 

“My suggestion is find a [support] group if you haven’t, and if you have, participate. It is helpful.”

— Lisa, diagnosed with metastatic melanoma

 

Jimmy Carter’s battle with cancer served as a wakeup call to many people, reminding us of the importance of skin protection and skin health. His message of prevention and early detection continues to resonate with people of all ages, and his dedication to improving cancer research and awareness has inspired countless others to do the same.

For Carter, one key to becoming cancer free just 4 months after his diagnosis was immediate treatment using radiation therapy and immunotherapy. His story is a powerful reminder of how important it is to address our own skin health and take steps to protect ourselves.

6 Strategies to Ease Your Worries About Cancer Recurrence

A side view of a female doctor hugging an older man in a clinic

Stock photo posed by models

While no single strategy is guaranteed to make fears of recurrence go away completely, there are steps you can take to help ease your distress.

Many people with a history of cancer experience worries and uncertainty about the future. This can include fears of an old cancer potentially returning, or a new cancer emerging.

These feelings, while distressing, are common and normal after a cancer diagnosis. In our own research, over half of participants in our cancer experience survey reported substantial concern about disease progression or recurrence.

If you have fears about your cancer coming back, you might notice that specific factors set them off because they remind you of your diagnosis. These triggers might include follow-up appointments, anniversaries or birthdays, new diagnoses among people you know, or physical symptoms like a new ache or bump on your skin.

Fear of recurrence can affect every part of your life. Being aware of possible triggers and having coping tools ready can help you manage and minimize these fears.

If you are worried about a recurrence, try one or more of these strategies:

1. Find Professional Support

Let your healthcare team know if you are feeling worried or anxious. They can refer you to a psychosocial oncology professional with whom you can discuss your concerns. This might be a therapist or an oncology social worker.

Many people don’t realize that oncology social workers can provide support throughout a patient’s entire cancer experience, even after treatment ends.

In 2022, 74% of callers to our Cancer Support Helpline reported having worries about the future and what lies ahead, and 50% requested additional support for this concern.

Another option is to visit one of our caring and supportive Cancer Support Community or Gilda’s Club locations near you. We have 190 locations worldwide, with professionally led programs that include support groups and educational workshops for cancer patients, survivors, caregivers, and loved ones. Our programs are offered at no cost to anyone impacted by cancer.

“There were times when I would worry myself sick, wondering if I would have a breast cancer recurrence, and that is definitely not living your best life. Dance, laugh, take that fabulous vacation to the beach (I did), volunteer your time. Just continue to live your life!”

— Delisa

2. Develop a Care Plan

Being an active partner in your survivorship care with your healthcare team can help you maintain a sense of control. While there are some things you can’t control, think about the things you can do, such as:

  • Asking your healthcare team about signs of recurrence for your cancer type and ways that you can stay healthy
  • Staying on top of recommended medical tests, procedures, and other follow-up appointments
  • Keeping track of new concerns and questions as they arise, and sharing them with your doctor

If you are about to finish active cancer treatment, or have just completed it, also talk to your doctor about getting a survivorship care plan. This plan outlines what a patient should do in their follow-up care and also includes important information about their diagnosis, treatments, and side effects they might experience.

Discover More About Survivorship Care Planning

Being an active participant in your healthcare and having a clear follow-up plan may help ease some of your worries about the future, including fears of recurrence. Read Alyssa’s story: a 2-time pediatric cancer survivor shares how survivorship care and self-advocacy have helped her cope with worries about a relapse.

3. Follow a Healthy Lifestyle

Creating a healthy lifestyle plan after cancer includes eating a nutritious diet and getting regular exercise.

Researchers continue to learn about the potential mental health benefits of doing both. Some studies suggest that exercise may help reduce anxiety for some people. A healthy diet that includes fruits, vegetables, omega-3 fatty acids, nuts, and seeds also may be associated with lower levels of anxiety.

Talk with your healthcare team about ways you can stay as healthy as possible through nutrition and exercise.

Get Tips to Ace Your Workout After Cancer

“Two of my goals are: one, to be able to walk further distances so I could go on a couple of vacations this summer and two, to do whatever I could to improve my neuropathy in my feet and my knees… I learned what machines to use to build up my glutes, which would steady my knees. I can now walk 20 minutes on the treadmill and my balance has improved dramatically. I also learned some new yoga and meditation, all [of] which provide stretching and give me some new tools to improve my emotional health when things get tough on my cancer journey.”

— Sharletta

4. Practice Mind-Body Techniques

Research published in the journal Psychooncology suggests that mind-body practices like meditation may help reduce fears of cancer recurrence and other uncertainties in survivorship.

Mind-body practices can help you rein in distressing thoughts, focus on the present, and achieve a sense of calm. A breast cancer survivor describes how meditation and breathing techniques have helped her manage fears of recurrence.

Relax & Unwind With Our Guided Meditation Videos

5. Connect With Others Online

As you navigate different concerns related to cancer survivorship, including fears of recurrence, it can be helpful to hear from others who are going through similar experiences. Our free online cancer community is a safe space for you to share your concerns with people like you who are navigating cancer or life post-treatment.

We have discussion forums on a variety of cancer topics, including post-treatment survivorship, coping with side effects, and nutrition & wellness. It’s a convenient option if you don’t have a CSC location close to home, or if you’re looking for ways to supplement in-person support programs you may be attending.

Connect With Others Like You Now

 

“I am bold and able to transcend my problems because of my solid support group, with whom I am transparent and inclusive and engage in my small wins, so they are emphatic with positive thoughts during my bad days. I just let it out in my support group about my feelings, pain, good and bad days.”

― Brinda

6. Do Something You Enjoy

Channeling your focus into an activity, be it a practical task or an interesting hobby, can provide a welcome distraction that takes your mind off your worries. If you enjoy doing the activity, it may bring you a sense of happiness, too. In fact, there’s a word for this focused state of mind: flow.

The term was coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a cofounder of the field of positive psychology. Csikszentmihalyi shares more about flow and happiness in this TED Talk.