Sun Safety-Based Lessons are Ineffective for Educating Teens About Skin Cancer

Over the 18 years since the Melanoma Education Foundation (MEF) was founded, we’ve learned that the success of sun safety instruction varies, depending on the age of the students.

Sun safety education has a much greater effect on elementary school students than it does on teens who attend junior high and high school.

Sloan Kettering Cancer Center recently conducted a study on this topic. They researched the difference between elementary and middle school students in Framingham, Massachusetts. They discovered a 50% reduction in the use of sunscreen use by the middle schoolers in comparison with that of the elementary school students.

Despite significantly increasing the amount of sun safety instruction taught in classrooms, we’re frequently informed by secondary school health teachers that their students aren’t taking heed of the information presented to them. They ignore the dangers of skin exposure to UV rays, and continue to tan either naturally or through tanning beds.

The sun’s harmful UV rays are directly responsible for 70% of melanomas and 95% of other skin cancers. In light of these alarming statistics, the question remains why would teens continually disregard sun safety lessons designed to keep them safe and healthy?

We think that the way the information is being presented is improperly balanced. Sun safety is overemphasized at the expense of sufficiently educating students about the consequences of overexposure to UV rays.

MEF lessons do include sun safety information of course, but they start by focusing the students’ attention on melanoma itself; what it really is, what it does and how it does it. This is tremendously important, because melanoma is the skin cancer most likely to affect them all the way from infancy into adulthood.

Our lessons start with providing key information about melanoma.

Specifically:

  • That teens are susceptible to melanoma right now
  • How melanoma develops and spreads to other parts of the body
  • Its risk factors and warning signs
  • How (and how often) to self-examine their skin for early signs of the disease
  • How easy melanoma is to cure if it’s found early- and how lethal it is if found too late

The second part of the lessons focus on the role that UV radiation plays in causing melanoma, and how to reduce the risks from it.

It’s important that the lesson topics are presented in the correct order: melanoma first, sun safety second. To a teen sitting in a classroom, a sun safety talk may sound very much like a parental lecture on brushing their teeth or washing their hands. In other words, just the sort of white noise they’d be likely to tune out.

However, when melanoma is explained to teens; when right off the bat they’re informed (and, also importantly, shown) just how much damage this disease can inflict, they are much more likely to take sun safety seriously and give it the respect it commands.

A teacher survey that we recently conducted regarding the impact of MEF’s lessons yielded some very positive results. Among them:

  • 73% of teachers reported that students made appointments to get moles checked after receiving the lessons
  • 14.8% of teachers were told by students that early melanomas were found because of the lessons
  • 34% of teachers said students found precancerous moles because of the lessons
  • After the lessons, 95% of teachers reported students said they would use more sunscreen, and 81% reported students said they would stop using tanning beds

That is very encouraging data. Our previous blog post on this specific survey provides additional positive results regarding the impact of the lessons on teachers and their families. If you’d like to read it, please click HERE.

*Information source articles: MEF Fall 2017 Newsletter Article, Prospective Study of Sunburn and Sun Behavior Patterns During Adolescence, Pediatrics. Feb 2012; 129(2): 309–317, Sun-protective behaviors in populations at high risk for skin cancer, Psychology Research and Behavior Management, December 20, 2013, Indoor Tanning Is Not Safe, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Updated January 24, 2017, Melanoma Knowledge and Sun Protection Attitudes and Behaviors Among College Students by Gender and Skin Type, American Journal of Health Education, Sept/Oct 2005, Vol 36, No. 5

To visit our websites, please click: Skincheck.org and/or Melanomaeducation.net

Facebook: Melanoma Education Foundation

Twitter: @FindMelanoma

Melanomas with No Identified Primary Site

Most melanomas are initially discovered on the skin. However, in a small percentage (5%-10%) of people who’ve had a recent melanoma diagnosis, the disease has spread beyond their skin and into other organs or lymph nodes; with little-to-none of the initial blemish left visible.

Regression

Though the amount varies widely, to some extent we all have moles and skin growths. Occasionally, our immune system takes a disliking to one- and sets out to kill it. Once the body has set this ‘seek-and-destroy’ mission in motion the pigment, and thus the appearance and visibility of the targeted growth, slowly starts to dissipate. Sometimes, to the extent that a person can’t even tell that it was ever there at all.

If such a growth is benign (noncancerous) it’ll dissolve harmlessly. If it’s a malignant melanoma it is a real problem, and may be even more dangerous than the more traditional form of melanoma.

How can Regressive Melanoma be “More Dangerous” than Traditional Melanoma?

On the surface (so to speak) in and of itself regressive is not a deadlier version of melanoma. What makes it more dangerous though is that it’s much harder to see, and easier to misdiagnose, than a typical case. Melanoma is more often spotted by the patient than it is by his or her doctor. And the cure rate for melanoma is nearly 100% if it’s caught early enough. But regressive melanoma can metastasize (spread) without a patient even knowing it existed. Its remnants can be easily mistaken as nothing. And it’s totally natural for a medical layperson to assume that something “clearing up” is a good thing.

Our immune systems are a biological marvel; the lengths to which they go every day to protect us are truly extraordinary. Unfortunately, with regressive melanoma, their efforts to terminate cells that they believe to be harmful may be incomplete, allowing the disease to progress. In other words, they’re inadvertently helping melanoma conceal itself until it’s too late.

What can I do?

When performing your monthly skin self-exam, be sure to pay as much attention checking for moles and blemishes that appear to be fading unevenly, as you do to for those that are more visibly growing and changing. If either is found, schedule a dermatologist appointment quickly.

Here are two melanoma photos of both early and late-stage surface regression, presented respectively:

 

 

 

 

As can clearly be seen here, especially with the late-stage photo on the right, these blemishes appear to be healing. Healing marks of any kind tend to be disregarded.

That’s fine when it’s a simple, garden-variety bruise sustained from lightly bumping an arm against a countertop. But a fading skin growth, mole, or blemish should never be disregarded or ignored. They should be leant the same weight as any other suspicious change to the skin.

*Additional information sources: Melanoma Education Foundation (MEF) newsletter; Autumn 2015, Lloyd-derm.com

To visit our websites, please click: Skincheck.org and/or Melanomaeducation.net

Facebook: Melanoma Education Foundation

Twitter: @FindMelanoma

Expediting a Dermatologist Appointment

When educating people about melanoma, the fact that is stressed the most (equally alongside the importance of monthly skin self-examinations) is how crucial it is to have skin cancer quickly diagnosed and treated.

But what happens when you discover a suspicious skin growth and wisely go to have it checked out- only to learn that you can’t get a dermatologist appointment for an unacceptable length of time?

Above all else, the one thing that you’d never do is shrug your shoulders, take an “oh well, I tried” attitude, and then drop the matter. That could be a fatal mistake.

What can I do?

Dermatologist appointments are often scheduled 3 or more months in advance. That’s too long to wait if you’ve found something suspicious on your skin. However, before trying to expedite an appointment, be sure to check the photos and information on skincheck.org. Don’t “cry wolf”.

Once done, contact a (or your own) dermatologist, explain your concern, and state that you’ll accept any time slot opening they may have available to you. Also, ask if you can be called first in the event that another patient cancels a previously scheduled appointment. If you are successful at securing a quick appointment, don’t expect a complete skin exam. Generally, in these instances a dermatologist will focus solely on the source of your concern.

What can I do if I Still Can’t Get a Fast Appointment?

If you’ve done everything discussed above but still can’t get a fast appointment, (no longer than within 1 week) there are other avenues to pursue. You can:

  • Contact the office of a board-certified general surgeon or plastic surgeon. They are fully trained in excising moles and early melanomas. They’re also typically available sooner for appointments than dermatologists are.
  • Contact the dermatology department of a large hospital and make an appointment. You can often meet with a dermatologist without a referral; though your insurance company may require one before they’ll cover the cost of your visit. You will not be turned away regardless of your financial situation.
  • Contact the American Academy of Dermatology (888-462-3376). or conduct an online search at < https://www.aad.org/find-a-derm > for information about dermatologists in your area.

With some exceptions, referrals are not usually difficult to obtain. If your physician does deny you one, either find another doctor or go get checked out anyway. General practitioners don’t have the extensive training and experience with skin cancer that dermatologists do. Unfortunately, this inexperience has led to numerous unnecessary melanoma deaths.

The bottom line is that these are merely petty obstacles that pale in comparison to the ultimately horrible end-result of an undiagnosed, untreated melanoma. Money and medical red tape should be no deterrents to protecting your health, and potentially saving your own life.

To visit our websites, please click: Skincheck.org and/or Melanomaeducation.net

Facebook: Melanoma Education Foundation

Twitter: @FindMelanoma

CHANGE: The Most Important Melanoma Warning Sign

The appearance of melanomas can vary widely from one to another. They develop in many difference colors, sizes and other unique visual characteristics. For this reason, trying to discern whether a mole is cancerous just by looking at it isn’t a reliable method. Even dermatologists can’t always tell the difference based solely on appearance.

However, there is one distinctive warning sign that (nearly) always identifies a melanoma: change. it’s the most important reason why performing a regular monthly skin self-examination is so vital. It’s just as significant to check any pre-existing skin growths for change as it is to look for new ones.

What to Look for

This is a list of skin growth changes to help learn what it is you should be looking for:

– An increase in its diameter or elevation

– A change in its shape; especially if that shape has become irregular

– A change in its color or shade

-Persistent itching

– Any change in its surface, including:

  • Texture
  • How it feels to your touch
  • How it reacts to light (reflects)
  • Development of one or more bumps- even if they’re small
  • An ulceration (liquid-like appearance, such as found in an open sore)
  • Bleeding spontaneously or upon minor trauma

Any of these changes that continue for 3 weeks or longer need to be checked out. Though any bleeding or ulcerations should be brought to the immediate attention of a dermatologist.

Please note that this list is a helpful guide, but it’s not all-inclusive. Any changes to skin growths that are not found here should not be ignored.

We recently published a blog post that highlighted the differences between the two primary forms of melanoma, Radial and Nodular. As it’s relevant to this one, we’ll re-post it. To read it, please click HERE.

To visit our websites, please click: Skincheck.org and/or Melanomaeducation.net

Facebook: Melanoma Education Foundation

Twitter: @FindMelanoma

A Melanoma Menu

There is a lot to learn about melanoma. On the surface, it’s a fairly-straightforward subject; yet it’s also one that carries with it many important subtopics. This piece consists of selections from our previously published posts on the subject.

To view the original Melanoma Education Foundation (MEF) article on any of the topics below, simply click the link and you’ll be brought directly to it.

From Bad to Worse

About Radial and Nodular Melanoma, the two primary forms of the worst skin cancer.

A Bad Match: Keeping Moles Away from the Sun

The reasons why exposing moles to sunlight is a very bad idea.

Ginger Ail

A discussion on the increased risk of melanoma to redheads.

Connecting the Dots

For those with many moles, there is a tool that dermatologists can use to help keep tabs on patients’ skin health.

Which is Which?

How to tell the difference between freckles and moles

Normal and Abnormal Moles

Differentiating between normal and atypical moles.

Your Chances of Developing Melanoma

A discussion of melanoma risk factors.

Checking Up on Yourself

How to examine yourself for early signs of melanoma.

Skin Cancer: Not Child’s Play

The differences and similarities between childhood melanoma and melanoma in adults.

Melanoma: A Color-Blind Cancer

Information on Acral Lentiginous Melanoma, which is more common in blacks, Hispanics and Asians than it is in whites.

Stage 0 Melanoma

The best form of the worst skin cancer.

The Eyes Have It

Ocular Melanoma is a rare, deadly cancer that is not caused by UV (ultraviolet) ray exposure.

Can You Identify the Bad Guys?

A quick visual quiz that tests your ability to tell benign moles from those that are cancerous.

Action, Not Fear

What to do if a suspicious growth is found during a skin self-examination.

Survey Says?!

The excellent results from teachers who were surveyed regarding the effectiveness of the Melanoma Education Foundation’s (MEF) classroom melanoma lessons.

To visit our websites, please click: Skincheck.org and/or Melanomaeducation.net

Facebook: Melanoma Education Foundation

Twitter: @FindMelanoma

Intermittent Sun Exposure and Melanoma Risk

Our efforts to increase melanoma education often include clearing up various misconceptions about the disease. Those who’ve never been taught much about skin cancer tend to make incorrect assumptions about it.

One of these beliefs is that melanoma incidence is highest in southern states, and among people who consistently spend time out in the sun. While it is true that skin cancer impacts both, it’s not the whole truth.

The sun’s harmful UV (ultraviolet) rays can be just as dangerous, if not even more so, to northern U.S. residents as they are to those who live in the south. And with reason.

There is a scientific hypothesis that those who inhabitant northern and central states are more prone to developing melanoma than people living in sunbelt states, due to intermittent sun exposure.

Scientists believe that the populations of sunbelt states can become more acclimated to UV rays because their skin is more likely to be exposed to them year-round. Non-medically, it’s similar to the way an auto mechanic at some point builds up a tolerance to the smell of gasoline.

Some examples of intermittent (sporadic, occasional) sun exposure include:

  • Spending much of the winter months indoors, then exposing skin to strong sunlight during the summer months
  • Spending the entire workweek indoors, and then full weekends outdoors
  • Northern and U.S. state residents vacationing in tropical or semitropical locations like Mexico, Florida, the Caribbean, or other areas where UV rays are particularly intense

Statistics show that when all ethnic groups are considered only one sunbelt state, Georgia, ranks within the Top 10 states for melanoma occurrences. And when only non-Hispanic Caucasians are included, only two states make that Top 10 list: Georgia again, and Hawaii.

This chart shows the Top 10 melanoma state rankings:

 

 

 

 

 

Source: https://nccd.cdc.gov/uscs/cancersrankedbystate.aspx

The skin cancers that are less serious than melanoma (basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma) are more prevalent in sunbelt states.

It’s important to note that this information doesn’t mean that southerners shouldn’t continue to take sun-safety precautions; they certainly should. It means that northerners should remind themselves that the cold is no shelter from melanoma.

To visit our websites, please click: Skincheck.org and/or Melanomaeducation.net

Facebook: Melanoma Education Foundation

Twitter: @FindMelanoma

Moles and Sun: A Dangerous Combination

Benign moles (or nevi) are so common that pretty much every human being on earth has them. In the language of medicine, “benign” means noncancerous. However, exposure to dangerous ultraviolet (UV) rays from our sun can create mutations on moles that cause nevi to turn from safely benign, to dangerously malignant (cancerous). UV rays even often promote a common mole’s formation to begin with.

In a report cited within an article posted by the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, researchers in California have discovered a way to determine the direction moles take as they transform from skin lesions (“precursors”) to reaching their fully malignant, potentially fatal, forms.

This easy to remember chart shows the progression to melanoma upon UV exposure:

Normal mole (1 mutation) —-> Atypical mole (several mutations) ——> Melanoma (many mutations).

It was the data gathered by this group of scientists that confirmed the negative impact UV rays have on skin by initiating the growth of moles, as well as turning them cancerous. It also confirmed the existence of “intermediate lesions”, which are lesions whose benign or malignant status is not easily determined. The latter discovery will be greatly beneficial to dermatologists when choosing the treatment for their melanoma patients.

So, what does all of this mean to those of us who are non-medical laypersons? That has been neatly summarized by the words of Dr. Boris Bastian; the report’s senior author:

“A lot of melanomas have been sequenced at this point, and while it’s clear they carry UV-induced mutations, no one knew when they occurred…This study shows that they occur in benign moles, in the melanoma that arises from these moles, and in intermediate lesions. UV both initiates and causes the progression of melanoma, so exposing even benign moles to the sun is dangerous.”

Just because a mole is benign doesn’t mean it will stay that way. It’s very important to always take the appropriate skin protection precautions whenever we’re exposed to the sun.

*Additional information sources: University of California San Francisco, Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

To visit our websites, please click: Skincheck.org and/or Melanomaeducation.net

Facebook: Melanoma Education Foundation

Twitter: @FindMelanoma

Indirectly Speaking: The Impact of Secondary UV Exposure

Even among those who make a concerted effort to practice sun-safety, there remains a tendency to forget about the impact that secondary, or indirect, sun exposure has on our skin.

If there’s a choice to stand in the sun or in the shade, certainly the latter is preferred. But shade alone isn’t nearly enough to keep us adequately protected from harmful UV rays. Also, the amount of protection shade provides can vary substantially based upon factors such as the object(s) providing it, your location, time of day and the environment around you.

The singular point to remember most is that it’s still very possible for us to incur significant sun skin damage- even while fully in the shade.

There are multiple scenarios within which we may not realize the actual amount of UV rays to which we’re being subjected.

With that in mind, we would like to focus on three important types of indirect sun exposure; Reflected, Scattered and Diffuse.

Reflected

Reflected is pretty much just what it sounds like. UV rays reflect off many things such as sand, snow, concrete, water, asphalt, ice and light surfaces; among others. So even if you’re sitting or standing under an umbrella (or parasol), or a tree(s), et cetera, your skin is still absorbing the rays being reflected onto it.

Scattered

UVB rays emanate from our sun, and then once they’re within our atmosphere they can be “scattered” throughout the sky at a higher volume than we realize. If you are outside in a shaded area but can see blue sky, you are receiving scattered UV radiation.

Diffuse

Many people have the misconception that if it’s cloudy, hazy or overcast outside, they have a natural protection from sun exposure. Unfortunately, that isn’t true. And thinking that it is can lead to severe skin damage. The truth is that hazy sunlight may expose your skin to even more UV radiation than sunlight on a clear day.

Myth-cellaneous

Within this article we’ve shed some light (no pun intended) on a few of the biggest myths that people believe about skin damage; such as that you cannot get sunburned in the shade or in the haze.

However, to highlight those points, here are four pictures of common scenes at which one would be impacted by indirect sun exposure when you are in shade:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Please keep in mind that even if we’re unaware, the sun’s harmful rays will always be there. 

*Additional information sources: Sunsaferx.com, Abc.net.au, Skincancer.org

To visit our websites, please click: Skincheck.org and/or Melanomaeducation.net

Facebook: Melanoma Education Foundation

Twitter: @FindMelanoma

Mole Mapping

If you have high skin cancer risk factors, or those who have over 50 moles, or too many moles to easily track yourself, mole mapping is a useful tool. Even better, the procedure is non-invasive and completely painless.

How Does Mole Mapping Work?

A dermatologist will take pictures and images of his or her patients that encompass the outer layer of skin. Once completed the records are archived. They’re then used later to check against future images and monitor any newly-developed moles; along with any changes to pre-existing ones.

This photograph depicts a patient undergoing mole mapping with her dermatologist:

It’s Not a Catchall

Research into mole mapping has revealed that it does increase the chances that dermatologists will discover early melanomas. (In one study, the odds increased by 17%).*

However, mole mapping should be used to augment, not replace, a person’s skin health care behaviors; as it has its limits. For instance, melanoma can develop on the scalp, which for most people is covered with hair that the cameras can’t see through. It can still miss cancerous moles, and there is always the possibility that a melanoma will develop and spread quickly during the time-gap between office visits.

For those reasons, it’s also important to perform monthly skin self-examinations, so any oddities can be brought swiftly to the attention of a dermatologist.

Working in tandem, skin self-exams and mole mapping will provide an even greater chance of catching and stopping a melanoma before it’s too late.

How do I Locate Dermatologists Who Provide Mole Mapping?

If you or someone you know is interested in mole mapping and would like to find local offices that perform it, start by running an internet search for “mole mapping services, ZZ”. When you do, simply replace the “ZZ” with your state’s postal abbreviation. (For example, Wyoming = WY, Minnesota = MN, etc.)

*Additional information sources: News-medical.net/health/Mole-Mapping.aspx (Catherine Shaffer, M.Sc.)

To visit our websites, please click: Skincheck.org and/or Melanomaeducation.net

Facebook: Melanoma Education Foundation

Twitter: @FindMelanoma

SPF: Fact versus Fiction

Each day, more people learn about the importance of wearing sunscreen whenever they’re outdoors to shield themselves against the sun’s harmful UV (ultraviolet) rays. While that news is heartening, getting that information out is only half of the battle.

If a user misunderstands how a sunscreen’s Sun Protection Factor (SPF) works, or if the product is incorrectly applied, the level of protection received can be considerably lower than he or she believes it to be. That can be very dangerous.

Here’s why:

If your mouthwash contained a lesser percentage of cinnamon flavor than you thought it did, it would make absolutely no difference as far as your health is concerned. However, if you walked around every day thinking you were wearing a sunscreen that provided more skin defense than it actually did, that mistaken notion could end up resulting in skin cancer. Or, even worse, the potentially deadly melanoma.

Don’t Get Burned, Either Literally or Figuratively

We’d like to help clear up this confusion. There is a view held by many that, because an SPF 50 sunscreen absorbs 98% of UVB radiation while an SPF 100 sunscreen absorbs 99%, just 1% more, the SPF 100 sunscreen offers hardly any advantage over the SPF 50 sunscreen. That’s a misinterpretation of the facts.

If an SPF 100 sunscreen is correctly applied and continually re-applied every two hours at a minimum, (or immediately after swimming or profuse sweating) it’ll provide adequate skin protection for double the amount of time that a SPF 50 sunscreen will.

But Wait, There’s More!

There are other ways that we inadvertently end up leaving ourselves vulnerable to those dangerous UV rays. We’ll go over a few here.

It’s the rare person who applies an amount of sunscreen sufficient enough to reach the SPF level touted by the product. And, whether they do or not, most don’t re-apply it as needed- if they even re-apply it at all.

Every time you use sunscreen, the goal should be to cover every sun-exposed inch of skin. If you’re in a swimsuit, the necessary quantity is enough to fill a shot glass. In fact, instead of guessing, consider simply using an actual shot glass.

Unfortunately, independent studies have shown that an alarming number of sunscreen brands don’t meet the SPF ratings that their packages trumpet. It’s important to do a little online research on your favorite brand to see if the claimed SPF is accurate.

Finally, it bears repeating. You’ve probably heard that famous real estate slogan, it’s all about location, location, location! With sunscreen, think re-application, re-application, re-application! If you’re going to be spending time outdoors, re-application is as important as applying sunscreen is to begin with.

*Additional source: Melanoma Education Foundation (MEF) Fall 2016 Newsletter

To visit our websites, please click: Skincheck.org and/or Melanomaeducation.net

Facebook: Melanoma Education Foundation

Twitter: @FindMelanoma