July 13-26, 2001
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Tips to prevent and detect skin cancer

Staff Report

Skin cancer can be more than skin-deep — that new bump that won’t go away could be skin cancer.

“Skin cancers are rarely painful, which is why they often go undetected and enlarge, becoming a greater problem,” said Dr. Harry L. Parlette, professor of clinical dermatology. “It’s important to check yourself regularly for new growths or other changes in the skin that last longer than two weeks. If skin cancer is brought to a doctor’s attention before it has a chance to enlarge, it can be more easily treated.”

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. The National Cancer Institute estimates 40 to 50 percent of Americans who live to age 65 will have skin cancer at least once. Although anyone can get skin cancer, the risk is greatest for light-skinned people. Ultraviolet radiation from the sun is the main cause of skin cancer.

Tips for preventing skin cancer

Most skin cancers appear after age 50, but the sun’s damaging effects begin at an early age. Therefore, doctors advise taking the following steps beginning in childhood to prevent skin cancer:

• Whenever possible, avoid exposure to sun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

• Wear protective clothes, such as broad-brimmed hats and long sleeves, to block UV rays.

• Use sunscreen lotion rated 30 or higher to block most of the sun’s harmful rays. One teaspoon of sunscreen is needed for the head and neck and one ounce for the rest of the body, Parlette said.

Tips for detecting skin cancer

Warning signs of skin cancer vary, but can include the following:

• A new growth or a sore that doesn’t heal in two weeks.

• A smooth, shiny, pale or waxy lump.

• A firm red lump, sometimes with bleeding or a crusty surface.

• A flat, red spot that is rough, dry or scaly.

For people who have been diagnosed with skin cancer, U.Va. researchers are conducting clinical trials of a vaccine for melanoma, a less frequent but dangerous type of skin cancer. Since 1996, 120 people have been treated with melanoma vaccines developed by Dr. Craig L. Slingluff, a U.Va. cancer surgeon. The vaccines have reduced the size of tumors by half in 20 percent of 17 participants with widespread melanoma. Survival rates have been increased to a larger extent than anticipated, with virtually no harmful side-effects. If the vaccine’s success rate continues throughout the remainder of the trials, Slingluff said it could become available in the next five to 10 years.

More information about skin cancer is available on the U.Va. Cancer Center Web site at http://www.med.virginia.edu/medcntr/cancer/ptlinks.html#melanoma.


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