Summer is right around the corner, which for many people means that the time has finally come to break out the blanket and book and head to the beach. Most of your patients probably have a general awareness about the importance of sunscreen (likely based on past experience with sunburns), but many people are not aware of just how harmful exposure to the sun’s rays can be—or of the protective measures they should take to prevent melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer.
The sun’s rays can nourish and energize the human body. Sunlight triggers vitamin D synthesis in the skin, a key process that aids in the absorption of calcium by our bones and may have other health benefits besides. Unfortunately, these same rays are also a main cause of melanoma. Most melanomas are caused by exposure to the sun’s UV rays. And thanks to the rising popularity of UV ray-emitting artificial tanning beds, melanoma has become one of the fastest growing cancers worldwide, especially in women younger than 30 years.
The good news, however, is that most melanoma is curable in its early stages, with greater than a 90% survival rate if diagnosed before it has spread. For patients who may be at high risk for melanoma, education on how to take extra precautions and limit their exposure to UV rays is vital.
Patients at a higher risk for melanoma include those who have
· Fair skin and freckles, and/or light eye and hair color
· Abnormal moles, or a large number of ordinary moles
· A family history of melanoma or nonmelanoma skin cancer
· A history of blistering sunburns in their youth
· Sensitive skin that tans or burns from minimal sun exposure.
People with weakened immune systems, such as those who have chronic leukemias, other cancers, or HIV/AIDS, or those who have undergone organ transplants or are taking medications that suppress the immune system, are also at greater risk.
Oncology nurses should encourage higher-risk patients to visit a dermatologist once a year for a professional skin examination and to learn how to perform monthly self-examination of their skin. Nurses should also stress to patients that avoiding tanning beds is the best thing they can do to avoid melanoma. Exposure to tanning beds before age 30 years increases a person’s risk of developing melanoma by 75%. And younger people who regularly use tanning beds are eight times more likely to develop melanoma than are people who have never used them. Even occasional use of tanning beds by people younger than 30 years triples their chances of developing melanoma.
CancerCare, a national nonprofit organization that provides free support services to individuals and families affected by cancer, recently published an informative fact sheet that details melanoma risk factors. The fact sheet, “Melanoma Risk Factors and Screening,” can be ordered free of charge from www.cancercare.org.
Aside from avoiding tanning beds, people can take many other preventive measures to lower their risk of melanoma. Advise patients to follow these tips when participating in outdoor activities:
· Wear waterproof sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher, and reapply often.
· Choose sunscreen labeled “broad spectrum,” meaning that it protects against both types of UV rays: UVA and UVB.
· Seek shade or avoid the sun during the peak hours of 10 am to 4 pm.
· Wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothing that protects a larger area of skin.
· Wear clothing that covers the entire body, and wear a hat and sunglasses.
Additional melanoma prevention information can be found in CancerCare‘s new fact sheet, “Causes of Melanoma and Prevention.” This fact sheet, reviewed by oncology social workers and experts in the field of melanoma research, is available to patients and health care professionals free of charge from www.cancercare.org.
For the patient or loved one who is facing a melanoma diagnosis, a wealth of resources exists to provide support. This past March, CancerCare partnered with the Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF) to launch The Melanoma Helpline. Staffed by professional oncology social workers, the helpline addresses the needs of people diagnosed with melanoma and/or their loved ones and then connects them to other resources that can provide additional support. Encourage patients to call The Melanoma Helpline at 1-877-MRF-6460 (877-673-6460).
Melanoma is a serious disease, but the statistics are not altogether grim. Melanoma is usually visible on the skin, making it much easier to detect in its early stages than other cancers. Educate your patients on the importance of early detection by regular examination and self-examination. Remind them that most moles are benign and do not become melanoma, and urge them to consult with a dermatologist if they are concerned about the appearance of a mole. When melanoma is detected early, survival rates are extremely high. It is essential that your patients know what signs to look for and what they can do to protect themselves while enjoying the sun.
Rosalie Canosa is program division director for CancerCare.