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Comfortable in Your Own Skin

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, which might not mean much to you—until you consider how widespread the disease really is.

“Skin cancer rates are skyrocketing, both in the U.S., where more than 3.5 million skin cancers are diagnosed annually, and around the world,” says Dr. Michael Steppie, president and medical director of the Orlando-based Associates in Dermatology. “In fact, one in five Americans is diagnosed with skin cancer at some point in their lives.”

Steppie further notes that skin cancer is the most common form of the disease in the U.S., with more people being affected by it than by breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer combined. The results can be just as devastating as those stemming from higher-profile forms of cancer, too, including expensive hospital bills, prolonged treatment and even death, particularly in the Sunshine State.

Beyond skin cancer, neglecting proper care of skin can lead to other problems large and small for you and your family. Fortunately, local dermatologists say that common sense can go a long way toward staving off future worries and keep you looking your best for decades to come.

Risk Factors

When it comes to living in Greater Orlando, area doctors are in agreement: The sun is out to get you.

“Obviously, the number one, two and three problem for Florida is sun, sun and sun,” says Dr. John “Lucky” Meisenheimer of Orlando. “I would say 80 to 90 percent of the skin problems I deal with are either from acute or chronic sun exposure.”

Dr. Tace Rico of Florida Center for Pediatric Dermatology in Orlando concurs. “Sun exposure is the biggest risk throughout the U.S., but definitely in Florida,” she says. “Not only is it one of the things that can give you skin cancer, but it can also give you wrinkles and horrible, blistering sunburns, which of course can be painful and traumatic as well.”

Additionally, while very fair-skinned people are at heightened risk to sun-related health problems, it doesn’t mean the opposite is true. Rather, Steppie says that people with darker skin tones don’t have a decreased chance of contracting skin cancer and related issues.

Finally, Rico says that a pest we have in abundance, particularly in the summer, can also lead to complications. “People can have really bad reactions to mosquito bites, especially children,” she says. “They can get these overreactions where they get swollen or get blisters. I’ve had a lot of patients present thinking they’ve had infections because they were getting different types of blisters just from mosquito bites alone.”

Consequences of Inaction

Dangers caused by excessive sun exposure are numerous, but none are more deadly than the possibility of contracting skin cancer, which can include melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and actinic keratoses.

“Since 1975, the skin cancer death rate among Florida residents over age 50 has doubled,” says Steppie. “In the past two decades alone, melanoma incidence among Hispanic Americans has even risen nearly 20 percent—a disconcerting statistic, particularly considering that melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer.”

“I myself have treated 30,000 skin cancers,” says Meisenheimer, “and I’m just one dermatologist. There are scores and scores of excellent dermatologists in Central Florida, and we’re all doing the same thing. So, it is a real problem—it is a real epidemic—and it is due to the sun.”

Rico warns that in addition to skin cancer, too much sun can also lead to photoaging, which

refers to damage done to the skin from prolonged exposure to ultraviolet radiation. “No one likes to think about being wrinkly, but that’s what the sun causes,” she says.

Protecting Yourself

The damaging effects of the sun and other local factors can be combated with a healthy dose of common sense. In other words, just because the sun’s out in Orlando through most of the year, it doesn’t mean your skin has to be out with it.

“Choose your exercise and activities outside wisely,” says Meisenheimer. “If you don’t have a choice and you know you’re going to be out in the sun, choose the appropriate wear for being in the sun.”

“Number one is sun avoidance—trying to avoid those really sunny times of day when the sun is at its strongest,” says Rico. “Sometimes even more important is protective clothing, hats and sunglasses. When you’re swimming, wearing rash guards and swim shirts can help and be even more protection than sunscreen.”

Speaking of sunblock, it’s especially important for children. “I know with kids it is a total pain to get sunscreen on them, but that’s when they need to be protected the most,” says Meisenheimer. “There have been studies that say upwards of 80 percent of your total sun exposure for your entire lifetime occurs before age 18, and that will reflect a lot on how your skin will be when you’re in your 60s, 70s and 80s.”

Furthermore, if there are outdoor activities you absolutely must—or want to—do during daylight hours, avoid doing them when the sun is at its hottest. “I have people who like to try to swim every day, but you have the option of doing your laps before the sun comes up or later in the afternoon when the sun goes down,” Meisenheimer says. “You don’t have to be out from 11 to 2 when the sun is most intense.”

Still, don’t think for a second that the sun can’t hurt you just because it’s not at its strongest. Per Rico, “People think they’re not getting as much sun when it’s windy or it’s cold, but you really are.”

Accordingly, no matter how proactive you are at protecting yourself and your family from the sun and other environmental factors, it’s still a good idea to get regular checkups. What’s more, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends an annual, full-body skin exam by a licensed dermatologist regardless of geographical location—so that doubtlessly goes double for Orlando residents.

“Cure rates are high and recurrence rates are low for cancers that are caught and treated early,” says Steppie. “It is important to check for changes in size, shape and color of pigmented areas. … So, as you make your spring and summertime plans, particularly in light of our on-and-off sunny days we’ve had here in Central Florida since early spring, keep in mind that soaking in the sun carries serious risk.”

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