How can you prevent getting skin cancer

Nicolette Dirk, finance writer, moneybags.co.za

We are enjoying the best days of summer exposing our skin, on a daily basis, to endless sunshine. But every year, 20 000 South Africans are affected by skin cancer that results in more than 700 skin cancer related deaths. This is according to the latest report by the National Cancer Registry.

The month of January is recognized as Skin Cancer Awareness month by the Department of Health. The use of effective sun protection methods and early detection has been highlighted as crucial elements to reducing the risks of skin cancer. But what else can you do to prevent getting this deadly disease?

What causes skin cancer?

The Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) states that 90% of cancers are caused by environmental factors. This is good news because it means the majority of cancers can be prevented.

Dr Dominique Stott, executive of medical standards and services at PPS, says consumers should understand the risks of skin cancer and take appropriate steps to reduce their chances of developing it.

“Most skin cancers are due to exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Many of the current skin cancer patients were exposed to excessive amounts of sun as children due to South Africans traditionally spending time in the sun – unprotected by sun screening lotions, or protective clothing,” says Stott.

But sunlight is not the only culprit linked to skin cancer. Stott says ultraviolet light from tanning salons has been shown to be a factor in the development of skin cancer. Our habits can also increase our chances of getting skin cancer. Stats by CANSA show that smoking causes 30% of skin cancer cases while viruses and chemicals account for 20% of reported cases. Obesity causes 15% of skin cancer cases while alcohol accounts for 10%. Sunlight is the lowest, causing 5% of skin cancers in South Africa.

Stott explains that there are different forms of skin cancer, of which the most dangerous is the malignant melanoma which may spread to other parts of the body. This is alarming because according to CANSA, cases of Melanoma are of the highest in the Western Cape than anywhere else in the world.

Treatment for skin cancer

There are various forms of treatment depending on the type of skin cancer. For the more common forms of skin cancer, a dermatologist may either surgically remove the lesion or prescribe specific creams which will remove them.

 

However, for a melanoma, surgical removal is usually performed and because this is a cancer, it is typically covered by medical aid. If removed in the early stages then it may be considered cured, with a 97% chance of a 10 year survival rate when a melanoma has been detected in very early stages. However, if removed after it has penetrated the deeper layers of skin, then it may have spread to other parts of the body and require intensive cancer treatment. At these stages, melanoma has a much poorer prognosis.

 

Prevention is better than cure

Stott adds that skin cancer cases tend to increase with age due to many years of sun exposure.

“To avoid long term skin cancer of any form, people must apply sun screen regularly when in the sun for any reason along with protective clothing, such as swimming tops and hats. This is not only important when one is on the beach but also for those who are exposed to sun in their occupation. It is also possible for melanomas to develop in areas not exposed to sunlight such as the nail bed, the mouth or the groin. Should any darkening of the nail bed develop it would be advisable to have this checked by a medical practitioner,” says Stott.

 

She adds that early diagnosis of any skin lesion by a doctor is vital to overcoming skin cancer. Any existing moles which have changed in colour or size, started ulcerating or bleeding, or grow nodules should be regarded as suspicious and seen by a dermatologist immediately. In addition to this, any newly developed darkly pigmented skin lesion must also be investigated. People of all ages are at risk and melanomas in young people are known to occur.

You are what you eat

Nutritional consultant, Vanessa De Ascencao, says research shows that low consumption of fruits and vegetables increases your skin cancer risk.

“The role of antioxidants in the protection against many forms of cancer has been clearly established. And in the case of skin cancer, the colorful plant pigments known as carotenoids are especially protective” she says. According to De Ascencao, these compounds are Mother Nature’s ‘sunblock’.

“When you consume carotenoids they are deposited in your skin, where they provide protection against sunburn and skin damage. These nutrients are also powerful antioxidants that scavenge for free radicals and repair cells that might become damaged. In other words, they reflect and protect, forming a physical barrier and a nutritional barrier against skin damage,” says De Ascencao.

The leading sources of carotenoids are eggs, spirulina, chlorella, tomatoes, dark green leafy vegetables (kale, collards, and spinach), and yellow-orange fruits and vegetables (apricots, cantaloupe, carrots, sweet potatoes, yams, and squash).

Stott says that as with all cancers, prevention is better than cure and early detection will improve the success of treatment.

“Given the climate of South Africa it is crucial that all citizens take the necessary precautionary measures by using adequate protection and avoiding the use of tanning beds and consult their doctor or dermatologist immediately should any suspicious skin lesions occur,” says Stott.