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Health Matters: Skin cancer

Joanne Rose is a retired nurse with 35 years of experience in public health, health promotion and protection. She lives off grid in Stephenville, on her farm with her husband Tom, and is lucky enough to be surrounded by family. Health perspectives shared in this column are meant to inspire and inform, but not to replace the advice of your regular healthcare professional.

What are these spots anyway?

It’s that time of year when the summer sun and wind start to wind down and naturally our skin may show a few little changes in appearance. Some sun tanning may be a little uneven. Some exposed areas such as ears and nose may have a little burn or discolouration.

So how do you know what is a good spot and what is not?

The Canadian Cancer Society recognizes that skin cancers can be successfully treated and cured when detected early, but how do you do that? Well, most healthcare information advises that people start by examining their skin in a well-lit room.

Using a mirror, examine all parts of your body for any changes or irregularities. Examining your skin regularly will help you to identify when there are any new changes.

Skin cancer usually starts as an abnormal area or change on any part of the skin. Look for and make note of any changes including: a sore that doesn’t heal or comes back after healing; a mole or sore that oozes, bleeds or is crusty; a change in the colour, size or shape of a mole or birthmark; a growth or area that is itchy, irritated or sore; rough or scaly red patches; small, smooth and shiny lumps that are pearly white, pink or red; pale white or yellow flat areas that look like scars or raised lumps that indent in the center.

Given the wide variety of descriptions noted above, if you do find an area of concern the best option is to seek advice from a healthcare professional. Your family doctor or nurse practitioner can examine your skin and, if necessary, refer you to a specialist to have the area cut out or biopsied and sent for further testing.

Skin cancer is caused mainly by exposure to ultraviolet rays via sunshine or tanning beds. The risk factors include exposure to sun, radiation therapy, increasing age, fair skin, family history of skin cancer, certain medications that suppress immunity, or exposure to arsenic.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, your exposure can be higher if your job has involved working outdoors for extended periods of time. Examples include commercial fishing, construction work, gardening, roofing, agriculture, and adventure tourism operators.

Another contributing factor is age. Older workers may have weakened immune systems and the opportunity exists for repeated exposures over time.

Medications such as corticosteroids taken for asthma, arthritis, or allergic reactions can weaken your immune system. Diseases such as lupus or inflammatory bowel disease can weaken your immune system. If you fall into one of these risk categories, you should do a skin exam regularly and discuss scheduling a regular skin exam with your health professional.

The important things to watch for are new or recurring skin changes, irregular shape or colour, a skin irregularity that is larger than a quarter of an inch, and itching, burning or tingling sensations. It never hurts to have these things checked out by a trained healthcare provider.

And some last words of advice – control your risk as much as possible. Avoid tanning beds and wear sunscreen. Cover your skin with light clothing and wear a hat!

As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

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