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Sun safety for seniors: Tips for spotting and preventing skin cancer

skin cancer awareness.jpgSeniors may not place a high priority on sun protection, but as we age our skin only becomes more vulnerable as we lose our natural protections against sun damage.

July is National UV Safety Month. It’s important for seniors to practice sun safety, and for everyone to protect their skin now to prevent cancers later in life.

What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer is a heterogeneous group of cancers comprising cutaneous melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers that typically affect seniors age 65 and older. These cancers present a wide disease spectrum in the elderly population, ranging from low-risk to high-risk tumours, advanced and inoperable disease.

Caucasians and men older than 50 have a higher risk of developing melanoma than the general population. The incidence in men ages 80 and older is three times higher than women of the same age. It is estimated that approximately 9,500 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer every day.

What causes skin cancer?

Both basal cell and squamous cell cancers, the most common types of skin cancer, tend to be found on sun-exposed parts of the body, and their occurrence is typically tied to lifetime sun exposure. The risk of melanoma, a more serious but less common type of skin cancer, is also related to sun exposure and other factors. Artificial sources of UV exposure, such as tanning beds, are also linked to skin cancer risk.

Why are seniors at risk?

As we age, our skin undergoes changes that weaken our defenses against skin disease, accelerating skin aging and increasing our risk for skin cancer.
The number one risk factor for seniors is the cumulative sun exposure they’ve had throughout their lifetimes. Skin type, heredity, immune system health and overall health are also contributing factors.

But skin also becomes more vulnerable to sun damage as we age. Our skin loses fat and water content and becomes thinner, allowing UV light to penetrate more deeply. The body’s natural ability to repair itself decreases, increasing the chances of abnormal cell growth and skin cancer.

What are the signs of skin cancer?

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends head-to-toe self-examination once a month and an annual visit to a dermatologist for a professional total-body exam. Here are some skin irregularities that should receive prompt medical attention:

Basal cell carcinoma

  • An open sore that bleeds, oozes, or crusts and remains open for several weeks

  • A reddish, raised patch or irritated area that may crust or itch, but rarely hurts

  • A shiny pink, red, pearly white, or translucent bump

  • A pink growth with an elevated border and crusted central indentation

  • A scar-like, white, yellow, or waxy area, often with a poorly defined border

Squamous cell carcinoma

  • A wart-like growth

  • A persistent, scaly red patch with irregular borders that may bleed easily

  • An open sore that persists for weeks

  • A raised growth with a rough surface and a central depression

Merkel cell cancer

  • Painless, firm, shiny lumps on the skin

  • These lumps can be red, pink, or blue

Senior sun protection tips

Protecting yourself from cumulative sun exposure is simple, but takes daily diligence. Of course you need to take precautions when you are spending a day outdoors, but even a few minutes outside every day adds up a lot of exposure over time.

  • Stay indoors or use extra protection when the sun is most intense between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Wear sun-safe clothing, including a long-sleeved shirt and long pants made of densely woven materials, a widebrimmed hat, and UV-filtering sunglasses.
  • Use an SPF 15 or higher broad-spectrum sunscreen every day, and SPF 30+, water-resistant sunscreen for extended or intense outdoor exposures. Reapply at least every two hours.
  • Watch for suspicious growths and have regular skin exams.

Belvedere Home Care wants all of the seniors and families we serve to live longer, healthier and happier lives! So, take cover this summer, wear your sunscreen and talk to your doctor about your skin cancer risk.