Wellness Wednesday: Protecting yourself from skin cancer this summer

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Man in bathing suit looking out over lake.
Before you hop in the lake this summer, be sure to slather some sunscreen. (courtesy Jean Gabler)
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Protecting yourself from skin cancer this summer
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We're headed into summer here in Minnesota. I don't know about you, but I plan on spending a lot of time outdoors, which means a lot of time in the sun, which for me means I lather on the sunscreen. Today I'm joined by Dr. Jerry Brewer, a dermatologist with Mayo Clinic, to talk about how to protect ourselves outdoors — as this is the month of May, Skin Cancer Awareness Month.

Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 CST, Jill Riley connects with experts and local personalities for some real talk about keeping our minds and bodies healthy — from staying safe in the music scene, to exercising during a pandemic, to voting and civic engagement. Looking for more resources and support? Visit our friends at Call to Mind, MPR's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health. Subscribe to Wellness Wednesday as a podcast on Spotify, Apple, RSS, Radio Public, Stitcher, or Amazon Music.

Jill Riley: What do we have to worry about in terms of our skin when it comes to summertime?

Jerry Brewer: You know, a lot of times we're coming out of a cold winter and people are itching to get out and get some sun, a little bit of that warmth in your blood, and it's totally okay to do that. A couple of things to know about though: skin cancer is a big deal. This is Melanoma Awareness Month, as you mentioned. About 9,500 people are diagnosed with a skin cancer every month. And protecting ourselves is a big deal. And there's really small ways to do that. Just using an SPF of 15 every day can decrease your chances of melanoma by 50%.

Is it really true that it gets one in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70?

That's right, yeah. And we estimate somewhere between five and seven million cases a year. There's gonna be probably around 207,000 cases of melanoma in 2021, we estimate. The downside is that about two people die of skin cancer every hour.

Well, then what are some ways that that we can best protect ourselves out in the sun? I mentioned sunscreen, I would guess that that's a big part of it.

Yeah, sunscreens are a big deal, and they definitely help. SPF 15 is okay, the thing with SPF that people need to realize is the lower number of SPF just last a little bit shorter. So if you're used to using a higher SPF, and you're okay with that, that's great. It just lasts a little bit longer during the day. If you use a lower SPF, you just need to reapply throughout the day.

I've always wondered about that, because I've just used a higher number because I have pretty fair skin, especially at the beginning of summer. It's like I always get that one bad burn that I learn the lesson from and then I'm like, okay, now I'm gonna buy SPF 80...but I didn't really know what the what the number actually meant.

Yeah, with the way the numbers are made is if we did a little experiment on your skin, Jill and we stuck out in the hot Hawaiian sun and timed how long it took you to burn. For example, if we put an SPF of 15 on you, then it would take you 15 times longer to burn. So it's you know, it's what 30 is 30 times longer. So it just the bigger the number at last a little bit longer. But you know, your point about burns, I get asked the question a lot, you know, what about getting that just that first burn and then you get a little bit of the baseline tan and then you're good to go for the summer. And, you know, it's important to know that if you have had only five sunburns in your life — which who of us have not? — it increases your chances of melanoma twofold and if you have a bad blistering sunburn in your past and your chances of melanoma can be two to three times higher.

Oh, wow. Because I've been there where, you know, my back is just blistered. And it's like I put on some sunscreen but then, you know, probably didn't reapply during the day. And for me, it's always that first one of the year that probably hits me the hardest. So it does sound like I mean getting that bad sunburn is a pretty big deal.

It is a big deal. Yep. And a lot of people will even go to a tanning bed to get a baseline tan that will maybe help protect you from getting that burn and, and that's also something that's really important to kind of put out there. You know, tanning beds put out intense UV radiation that are 10 to 12 times more intense than the sun at its peak intensity. And so just going to a tanning bed once increases your chances of melanoma by 20%. So it's definitely not a good idea to get a baseline tan at a tanning bed.

As with any kind of cancer, if there's anything we've learned it's that early detection is pretty key. So when it comes to early detection, is there something that I can be looking for? I mean, at least with a skin cancer it's something that we can see.

Yeah, and that's really great about the skin. A good healthy habit to do is to look yourself over once a month, find your favorite day of the month, get used to your skin, look yourself over. And Jill, your point is really well made that if you catch a skin cancer early, for example, melanomas that are caught early have a 99% survival rate. Whereas if they're caught a little bit late then that survival can go down to 66% if they're already in the lymph nodes at the time we treat them.

So the bottom line is that every skin cancer can be cured if it's caught early enough. And so those little things: looking for change in a color of a mole or...you know, interestingly, around 70% of melanomas are brand new dark spots. So if you're looking yourself over and you notice, you know, I don't think that spot used to be there, then that might be a good reason to get looked at. And those sorts of behaviors can sometimes end up saving your life.

I've looked over...I have really mole-y arms, like my shoulders. It's like, were you there before? Or are you a new one? I asked my skin that question: were you there before? So you're looking at a change of shape and change of color, maybe a new mole. Is it something that I need to, like, detect before I go see a doctor? Or is it a good idea to kind of make it an annual thing where you're visiting a dermatologist?

You know, it's never a bad idea to see a dermatologist. There was a study done by one of my good friends in Cleveland, that the density of dermatologists per population, if you have at least one dermatologist in the setting of a group of like 100,000 people, then the chances of that population dying of melanoma decreases by, I want to say, like 20%. It's never a bad idea to get a baseline formal exam, but also super important that you know your skin and if you're doing both of those things, then even even better. If you do go in and see a dermatologist, they'll probably tell you whether they want to keep seeing you or not. And but it's never a bad idea to get a baseline look over.

I'm careful about Googling my symptoms with anything that's wrong with me because I always find like that WebMD is basically telling me that I have two months to live...but when it comes to more information about melanoma, skin cancer awareness, are there some good resources out there that people can check out?

Yes, the American Academy of Dermatology has some great resources. Skincancer.org is a great source of good information that's backed up by a lot of good references. And you know, if you're tapped into a dermatologist, feel free to just reach out to them. It's never harmful just to ask your friendly dermatologist if this is true or false or whatnot.


Wellness Wednesday is hosted by Jill Riley, and produced by Anna Weggel and Jay Gabler. Our theme music is a portion of the song "F.B. One Number 2" by Christian Bjoerklund under the Non Commercial Share Alike 3.0 International License.


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