Skin cancer affects more people than any other type of cancer. And because it’s such a “commonplace” cancer, you may not worry about it very often. People tend to think of skin cancer as no big deal.
This disease isn’t harmless, though. It can do real damage.
It’s time to set the facts straight about skin cancer. Busting some of the top myths surrounding this disease may help you adopt skin-healthy habits for life.
Myth #1: Skin cancer only crops up in areas hit by the sun.
Skin cancer happens when abnormalities in skin cells develop and spread. Often, sun exposure triggers these changes. Parts of your body that spend a lot of time in the sun may be more likely to develop cancerous growths.
But skin cancer can affect areas that rarely see the sun, too. Some people develop abnormal growths on the bottoms of their feet or in the groin area.
If you notice an unusual mole anywhere on your body, get it checked out.
Myth #2: Skin cancer affects only outdoorsy folks.
Sun exposure isn’t the only risk factor for this disease. Family history is another.
Plus, you may be more susceptible if you’re an older adult, you have a weakened immune system, or you’ve been exposed to cancer-causing substances.
Some patients may never know the cause of their skin cancer. Point being? Even the most indoors-loving people should stay on the lookout for signs of melanoma and other skin cancers.
Myth #3: Only light-skinned people are at risk.
It’s true that people with lighter skin tones have a higher risk of skin cancer. That’s because they have less melanin, which means they have less natural protection from UV light.
In fact, white people without Hispanic heritage develop skin cancer about 30 times more frequently than some other racial groups.
That’s not to say that people with darker skin tones can’t get skin cancer, though. Absolutely anyone can develop this disease.
This is an important myth to bust because people of color don’t often catch their skin cancer until the disease has moved to an advanced stage.
According to one study, 25% of Black patients didn’t learn they had melanoma until the cancer cells had invaded nearby lymph nodes. And sadly, when the disease spreads, the survival rate drops.
People should wear sunscreen and take other appropriate protective measures regardless of skin tone.
Myth #4: Young people haven’t had enough sun exposure to get skin cancer.
As you get older, your skin cancer risk goes up. On average, people are diagnosed with the disease at age 65.
That said, this disease can develop at any age. Melanoma is actually one of the most frequent cancers to appear in patients under age 30. Young women are especially prone to skin cancer.
Plus, people of any age need to be aware of skin cancer risks. Your sun habits in your early years may influence your skin health as you get older.
Myth #5: Sunburns are dangerous, but tans are okay.
You probably know the ache of a truly terrible sunburn. No one needs to tell you that blistering sunburns are a definite hazard.
But did you know that getting even one severe sunburn as a kid or a teen can elevate your cancer risk? Maybe you did. And maybe you figure that you’ll be okay as long as you avoid major burns.
That’s an unreliable plan, though.
Any sun exposure can lead to cancer. When your skin changes color, no matter the extent, it’s a sign that your cells have experienced damage. In response, your body summons melanin in an attempt to protect your skin cells. The increase in melanin is responsible for your summer tan.
You might like that sun-kissed glow of the season, but be careful while you’re soaking up the rays. You might get more than you bargained for if you make tanning your only defense against sunburns. (Ahem: use sunscreen.)
Myth #6: I won’t get skin cancer from a tanning bed.
Indoor tanning is not a safe alternative to sunbathing on the beach. Just like the sun, tanning booths feature UV rays that damage skin cells. And in some cases, tanning beds may be more dangerous because the UV exposure is more concentrated.
If you’re anxious for a golden glow without the risk of UV exposure, your safest option is a topical product. Sunless tanners use chemicals to darken your skin.
Myth #7: Unprotected time in the sun is good for my health.
Yes, the sun does stimulate your body to produce vitamin D. And you need this vitamin, but that’s not an excuse to spend time outside without sunscreen.
Instead, you can get vitamin D from your diet. Fatty fish naturally provides this nutrient. Milk, juice and breakfast cereals are often fortified with vitamin D, too.
If your dietary intake isn’t enough, supplements are another option. Just check with your doctor before bulking up on any nutrient.
Myth #8: All sunscreen is created equal.
The sunscreen aisle can be an intimidating thing of beauty. Rows upon rows of bottles that all pretty much look the same, right? Nope.
There are a few different varieties of UV light. UVB is known for causing sunburns, so it has the reputation of being the only damaging variety. Some sunscreens block only UVB rays.
But it turns out that UVA isn’t safe either. This variety can damage your skin at a deeper level.
To ensure that your sunscreen has what it takes to keep away both UVA and UVB damage, look for products that boast broad-spectrum coverage. The SPF rating of a sunscreen tells only about its UVB protection level, but at least you’ll know you’re getting some UVA coverage as well.
As for whether you should use mineral or chemical sunscreen, that’s a whole other topic. And we’ve got a roundup of the pros and cons here.
Myth #9: Cloudy winter days aren’t a threat.
It doesn’t have to be hot or sunny for UV rays to reach your skin. Damage can occur throughout the year. Even thick cloud cover isn’t enough to block cancer-causing UV light.
Make sun protection a daily habit, even in the cooler months. No matter the weather or season, you should apply sunscreen before you go out.
Sunblock can be especially important during winter sports. A white blanket of snow will reflect sunlight up at you so that you’re doubly exposed to UV rays. Be sure to apply sunscreen on your “undersides,” too, such as the bottom of your chin.
Myth #10: Skin cancer isn’t a deadly disease.
Caught early, squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma and melanoma are usually curable. And this is probably why lots of people think of skin cancer as “no big deal.”
Unfortunately, not all skin cancers are found in time. When melanoma spreads to lymph nodes far beyond the original cancer site, the five-year survival rate drops to 27%.
More than 7,000 people die of melanoma each year.
Myth #11: There’s no way to find out you have skin cancer until it’s too late.
While skin cancer can be deadly, there’s an easy way to increase your chances of survival. Step one? Pay attention to your skin.
Get familiar with your freckles and moles. Be on the lookout for spots that look unusual or have changed in appearance. In particular, check for moles with mixed colors or uneven symmetry. Moles that have rough edges and ones that measure over 6 millimeters may also be cause for concern.
If your self-exam turns up a questionable spot, make an appointment with a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in skin issues.
It’s also smart to visit the dermatologist for a skin check at least once a year. The doctor will examine you from head to toe and test any potentially worrisome spots. Ideally, these steps will help you identify problem areas long before they develop cancerous traits.