May is Melanoma Awareness Month

Sunscreen is an effective way of reducing the risk of melanoma skin cancer.

May just might be the most important month on the calendar for dermatologists and oncologists when it comes to conveying the dangers of excessive sun exposure to patients. That's because this month is Melanoma Awareness Month, with May 7 recognized as Melanoma Monday around the world.

Aside from skin cancer being among the most common types of cancer in Canada and several other countries – melanoma is the deadliest variety. Indeed of the roughly 80,000 people in Canada who are diagnosed with skin cancer each year, 7,200 of them – or around 1 in 10 – are related to melanoma, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.

9 in 10 skin cancer cases are avoidable
Perhaps the most concerning issue as it pertains to skin cancer is the fact that despite being a well-known disease, it continues to be diagnosed rather frequently, even though it's preventable in 90 percent of non-melanoma cases, based on analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Another problematic issue pertaining to skin cancer is the low survival rate for those who don't notice anything unusual about their skin until well after a melanoma has formed. The Canadian Cancer Society says that in its late stages, melanoma cancer has a survival rate of only six months, on average, with 25 percent dying in 12 months. Last year, an estimated 1,250 people in Canada died after being diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer, sometimes because it wasn't caught early on.

The key to skin cancer avoidance and detection is through prevention, and there's no better way to reduce the risk of this deadly disease than by wearing plenty of sunscreen when outdoors for lengthy periods of time, doctors caution. The sun emits large amounts of ultraviolet radiation, the kind that penetrates the skin causing damage and premature aging of the epidermis – the outer layer of the skin – when sunscreen isn't used or applied properly. An example might be not using sunscreen liberally enough or using one with a low sun protection factor, or SPF. 

What type of protection should you use?
Sunscreens come in a wide variety, but the best kinds are those that offer both UVA and UVB protection, according to the Save Your Skin Foundation. These are the two main types of ultraviolet light that the sun emits, each of which can be dangerous in large doses. Unlike UVC rays, which get absorbed by the earth's ozone layer, UVA and UVB are able to cut through the atmosphere, raising the risk of conditions that excess sun exposure can catalyze, such as cataracts or premature wrinkling of the skin.

Sunscreen should also have a minimum SPF of 30, the Save Your Skin Foundation advised. Additionally, it should be applied approximately 20 minutes before going outside for prolonged periods, such as watching a sporting event or going to the beach. Whether in spray or lotion form, sunscreen ought to be reapplied every 90 to 120 minutes, especially when on the beach, as the water and sand serve as added reflection points, intensifying the sun's harmful UV rays. This risk is part of the reason why sunburns are so common after beach visits. Even when it's overcast, sunburning is possible, more so at the beach than other outdoor locations.

Use the ABCDEFG self-check method
Even though the risk of skin cancer diminishes significantly when sunscreen is applied and reapplied, it's not a panacea. In other words, it doesn't guarantee you won't be diagnosed so long as you're wearing it. That's why it's important to always keep the first seven letters of the alphabet – ABCDEFG – in mind. This is a mnemonic device that oncologists and dermatologists suggest going over now and then when performing routine skin self-examinations, looking for any unusual marks or growths.

  • A is for Asymmetry
  • B is for Border
  • C is for Color
  • D is for Diameter
  • E is for Evolution
  • F is for Firmness
  • G is for Growing

The Save Your Skin Foundation has more information about what each letter means. For example, asymmetry is in reference to a mole that, upon closer inspection, isn't uniform, meaning one side doesn't match the other. When one or all of these melanoma warning signs are evident, doctors recommend speaking with your primary care physician as soon as possible, who may refer you to a specialist.