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Love the skin you're in: Preventing skin cancer

It may surprise some of us, but Oregon has about the same number of deaths per capita from melanoma skin cancers as Arizona. So, as the sun begins to peek out for the summer, it's a good time to brush up on our skin cancer prevention guidelines.

Skin cancer “is quite a bit more common in our area than most people think, even with our cloudy days,” said Rowena Manalo, chief of family medicine at Kaiser Permanente, who works out of the Rockwood office.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show Oregon has one of the highest rates of skin melanomas and highest rates of death from the disease.

Blocking the sun's damaging rays, even when it seems cloudy, is the best way to prevent skin cancer. If you are going outside, “we recommend a broad-spectrum sun block with a 30 or higher SPF (sun protection factor),” Manalo said.

Smear the water-resistant block liberally on all exposed skin. Blocking lotion should be reapplied every two hours or if you've been in water. Remember to check the expiration date. Sunblock is not as effective if it is past the sell-by date.

“Don't forget to protect your lips with an SPF lip balm. That is really sensitive skin,” she said. Wear sunglasses that block UV (ultraviolet) rays.

“It is best to avoid the sun during peak hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” Manalo said. Hats, of course, are also a good idea.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: KAISER PERMANENTE - Dr. Rowena Manalo Each year in the U.S. more than 5.4 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer are treated in more than 3.3 million people, according to the New York-based Skin Cancer Foundation. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime. Each year there are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incidence of cancers of the breast, prostate, lung and colon. Over the past three decades, more people have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined, the foundation said.

And if the higher risk of skin cancer doesn't worry you, the foundation also noted that an estimated 90 percent of skin aging is caused by the sun.

Tanning booths “are not something I usually recommend,” Manalo said, noting their use boosts the risk of skin cancer.

Manalo herself takes no chances. On a recent trip to a sunny vacation spot, she bought special, long-sleeved shirts with SPF 30 woven in. This clothing is widely available on the internet and in outdoor stores, although it can be a bit expensive.

Manalo and other Kaiser doctors talk about skin health with patients who come in for routine check-ups. “It is one of the most common topics. It goes both ways, both patient and provider are interested. Patients come in and say 'Can you take a look at this?'”

Kaiser has an innovative approach for checking worrisome moles and skin conditions known as "virtual dermatology." The family physician can take a photo of the skin area and electronically send it to a Kaiser dermatologist for examination.

Babies should not be in the sun at all, the foundation recommends. For infants more than six months old, apply lots of sun block and put a hat on those little bald heads. Whimsical sun-blocking baby togs are available in stores and on the internet.

What about slowly tanning over the summer? Also not recommended, Manalo said. “Everyone needs vitamin D (which is provided by the sun). But the consensus is 15 minutes without protection is kind of the safety limit. After 15 minutes, apply an SPF 30 or get in the shade.”

Although it is important to protect yourself against cancer-causing sun damage, Manalo said: “We want to get everyone out there to exercise and garden.”

For more information about skin cancer, visit the Skin Cancer Foundation at skincancer.org.