Look out for skin cancer by seeing

The Big See message can alert people to all forms of skin cancer, often unnoticed for many months or years and dismissed as "no big deal".
The Big See message can alert people to all forms of skin cancer, often unnoticed for many months or years and dismissed as "no big deal".PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

NEW YORK • Ms Susan Manber, a 55-year-old from New York, credits her astute daughter with having saved her life nearly six years ago when Sarina, then 13, remarked: "Mum, what's that thing on your nose?"

That "thing" was a tiny white nodule on the rim of one nostril which Ms Manber thought was a pimple. It prompted her to see a dermatologist, who sent her to a specialist to have it removed and biopsied.

She was shocked to learn in late 2013 that she suffered from a very rare and aggressive form of skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma.

Ms Manber, who endured seven operations and was finally able to return to work as a health communications specialist two years ago, now advocates for the Skin Cancer Foundation's new, simplified campaign to get people to take skin cancer more seriously.

In honour of the foundation's 40th anniversary, it has a new alert message: "The Big See" - "see" as in look, and "C" as in cancer. If you see something anywhere on your skin that is new, changing, not healing or does not seem right to you, the foundation's president, Dr Deborah Sarnoff, urges you to get it checked out as soon as possible.

While all forms of skin cancer, including basal cell carcinoma, can be fatal if ignored long enough, the most common life-threatening form is melanoma, which is diagnosed 192,000 times a year in the United States and claims 9,000 lives.

The Big See message can alert people to all forms of skin cancer, often unnoticed for many months or years and dismissed as "no big deal".

 
 
 

More than five million nonmelanoma skin cancers are diagnosed annually in America and every hour, more than two people die from skin cancer even though it is the cancer everyone can see.

No scans or special or invasive detection tests are required, just your eyes or those of a friend or companion who, if they see something, should say something.

Ms Manber is equally passionate about the importance of protecting one's skin from the damaging rays of sunlight, which can penetrate all windows (except windshield glass in cars), pass through cloud cover and be reflected by water, sand and concrete.

Thus, shade is not completely protective. The damage to DNA caused by ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays starts within minutes of sun exposure, and the body's immune defences do not repair all of it, which can result in cancer-causing mutations over time. UVB causes sunburn and UVA, in addition to causing sunburn and tanning, ages and wrinkles the skin.

People with fair complexions, blue eyes, freckles or a family history of skin cancer are especially susceptible to the cancer-inducing rays of sunlight. They and anyone spending many hours outdoors in daylight are advised to always use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and reapply it every two hours and after swimming. They are also urged to wear protective clothing and a hat when out during the day, and be particularly careful about avoiding sun exposure when it is most intense - from 10 am to 4 pm.

But extreme sun avoidance can have its own risks: a decrease in the body's ability to form biologically active vitamin D, which is critical to bone health and, according to a Swedish study that followed nearly 30,000 women for 20 years, is tied to a small but significant increase in deaths from cardiovascular disease and other non-cancer-related disorders.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2019, with the headline 'Look out for skin cancer by seeing'. Print Edition | Subscribe