Skin cancer: Here's how to reduce the risk

  • Published
  • By Shireen Bedi
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- With plenty of summer weather remaining for Airmen executing the mission, impacts of sun exposure directly effects health and readiness.

“Approximately one in five Americans will develop skin cancer,” said Lt. Col. Emily Wong, Dermatology Consultant to the Air Force Surgeon General. “While our Air Force population tends to be younger and healthier, they are still at risk of developing skin cancer and need to take the necessary precautions.”

As Wong explains, as Airmen spend more time outdoors, there is an increased risk of developing some form of skin cancer, a risk present year round.

“Ultraviolet radiation is present all year and the sun’s rays are actually magnified in snow, sand and water,” said Wong. “If you are going to be doing activities in those areas, you want to take extra precautions.”

While being outdoors can be generally good for overall health, Wong also warns that there is no safe level of sun exposure.

“I frequently hear people trying to get a ‘base tan’ for the summer, but any type of tanning is actually going to do some damage to the skin,” said Wong. “When your skin turns darker, or turns red or pink, those are signs your skin is actually getting damaged.”

Some precautions Airmen should take, especially those whose jobs are performed outdoors, include seeking shade when possible, using and reapplying sunscreen of at least 30 SPF, and wearing proper clothing.

“For Airmen like those who work on the flight line, it is actually helpful for them to keep their uniform top on to help protect them from the sun’s rays if they are not using sunscreen regularly,” said Wong. “Even off duty, wearing protective clothing like a lightweight, long-sleeve shirt, clothing with built-in sun protection, or a broad-rimmed hat can help decrease their risk of harmful sun exposure.”

In addition to taking precautions, Wong recommends Airmen do regular skin checks once a month to identify concerns early.

“A lot of skin cancers actually have no symptoms and don’t always manifest as a big problem right away. They usually grow slowly and silently,” said Wong. “When you do a head-to-toe scan of your skin, look for skin growths that are red or look scaly, acts like a sore, do not heal, or look different from other growths on your skin.

“Melanoma, which is the one of the most deadly forms of skin cancer, may be identified by noticing the following things as you do your scan: Asymmetry, border irregularity, variable colors such as brown, black, white or red, diameter bigger than a pencil eraser, and any skin lesion evolving or changing over time.”

Airmen who are concerned about a possible skin issue should consult their primary care provider and talk with a dermatologist if a skin condition is not improving. Wong suggests Airmen see a dermatologist for a full body skin exam. This is especially important for Airmen who have a personal or family history of skin cancer.

“Dermatologists diagnose and treat the vast majority of skin cancers,” said Wong. “We help address skin concerns early and work to keep Airmen ready to support the mission.”