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Weekly Alibi Nurse Ratchett

Is That Skin Cancer on Your Back, Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

By Mike Ratchett, Staff Nurse

JUNE 29, 1998:  If this seems at all redundant, look at yourself in the mirror. By now, you've probably been out in the sun quite a bit, and the latest research shows that despite the fact that there are more sun protection products on the market than ever before, new cases of skin cancer are on the rise, especially among children. Granted, there's been a lot written and said recently about the possibility that certain ingredients in some suncreens may themselves be carcinogenic, but it's still too early to put all of one's eggs in that basket. Until conclusive evidence that use of sunscreens causes cancer or is worse for your skin than prolonged exposure to the evil burning ball in the sky, you'd best be slathering yourself with the stuff or face (no pun intended) horrible consequences.

One out of every seven Americans will develop one of three types of skin cancer during their lifetimes ... one in seven. It's the most common type of cancer, mainly because there are no symptoms. "If something doesn't hurt, people assume nothing's wrong," says Algin B. Garrett, MD, Director of Dermatologic Surgery at the Medical College of Virginia Hospital. "(Skin cancer) usually doesn't itch or burn. Most of the time, the cancers just grow and when they get large enough, they bleed or become a sore that won't heal. That's generally when people become suspicious." And that's generally too late.

The most common of the three types is basil cell cancer, usually a bump or nodule resembling a mole that most often appears on the neck, face and hands. The second most common is squamous cell carcinoma. This type of skin cancer shows up in the form of a sore that won't heal. The third and most serious is malignant melanoma. It often grows from an existing black mole which changes colors, develops a spreading black edge and can spread to other parts of the body. As usual, prevention--not laughter as the Lark and walker-bound staff at Reader's Digest--would have you believe-is the best medicine. Are you going sit around waiting for that mole on your back to start screaming obscenities at you in French, or would you rather see to it that none of your moles learn a language? Thought so. My helpful hints aren't anything new--wear sunscreen, limit your exposure to the sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.--but with skin cancer incidents on the rise, it's pretty obvious you're not taking anyone's advice. For your convenience and to make you feel as though you're getting your money's worth out of my stilted prose, I'll wind things up with a skin class/recommended SPF level primer.

There are six skin classifications beginning with Level 1 (a person who always burns and never tans) and ending with Level 6 (a person with naturally very dark skin or heavy pigment). For the first three levels, a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or greater should be used. For Level 4 skin, an SPF of eight to 12 should be sufficient, lighter for Levels 5 and 6.

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