When we think of First Lady Laura Bush, perhaps one of the last images to come to mind would be one of Mrs. Bush tanning herself to a bronze crisp. Therefore, news that the First Lady recently had a skin cancer lesion removed from her leg may come as a bit of a surprise.
In fact, such a condition may seem more likely in President Bush, who famously enjoys being outdoors in the hot Texas sun. But Mrs. Bush's experience actually helps dispel one of the more enduring misconceptions about skin cancer—that it only results from high levels of exposure. As health professionals have been telling us for some time now, skin cancer can result from very limited sun exposure.
However, it may turn out that women have a secret weapon to protect themselves against skin cancer—an every day product many women use regularly, if not every day. But before we reveal that exciting news, let's first clear up some basic information about skin cancer.
There are three types of skin cancers:
Basal Cell Carcinoma
BCC is the most common form of skin cancer. There are over 800,000 new cases every year in the United States. BCC is easily diagnosed and treated. Sun is responsible for more than 90 percent of BCC and the lesions occur most frequently on the face, ears, neck, scalp, shoulders, back and legs.
Fair skinned people are more likely to get them than those with darker complexions, and this kind of skin cancer is directly related to sun exposure.
To identify BCC, look for any growth that bleeds, oozes or crusts and does not heal.
The most common treatments for BCC are surgery, electric cauterization with curettage and freezing. With proper treatment, the local cure rate is 96 percent. This kind of cancer usually does not spread. Surgery is performed for recurrent lesions.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma, the type of cancer Mrs. Bush had, is the second most common type of skin cancer. Approximately 200,000 cases are diagnosed each year in the U.S. These lesions are not serious—if treated. They are treated locally with surgery and have a 96 percent cure rate. They rarely spread, but are more likely to if left untreated.
These lesions are also caused by sun exposure and are commonly found on the face, scalp, hands, shoulders, arms, back and legs (where Mrs. Bush's lesion was found.)
They present as thick, rough, thorny lesions that do not heal on their own.
Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer. There are 60,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the U.S. This cancer can spread (metastis) and cause death. However, most lesions are recognized early and treated with surgery. The cure rate with early detection and surgical removal is 96 percent.
Melanomas are malignant and are produced from the pigment cells; 90 percent of melanomas are caused by over-exposure to the sun.
They are easily diagnosed by doctors who use an A-B-C-D formula to identify them: Abnormal shape; notched, irregular Border; brown, black, red or white Color; and a Diameter greater than 0.5 cm.
There is actually a vaccine for metastatic melanoma.
What can we do to prevent skin cancer?
1. Avoid the sun, especially over-exposure to the sun.
2. Wear a sun screen with a high SPF.
3. Wear hats and protective clothing if you're going to be exposed to the sun.
4. Have an annual skin exam at a dermatologist. Being that you should be examined naked (in your birthday suit), a great way to remember to have this exam is to schedule it each year around your birthday.
5. Perform a regular self-exam of your skin, or have a loved one look you over for irregular or discolored skin growths.
6. Should you notice any lesions or growths that are changing shape or color or not healing, do not delay medical treatment.
When it comes to skin cancer, prevention is the key. Protecting your skin from the sun every day and having annual skin exams by a professional will save you surgery and scarring.
Now for the surprise good news for women. It turns out that one of the best sun blocks around is the makeup you may be wearing every day!
Sunscreens reduce the effects of the sun's rays, but the sun still gets through and radiation damage to the DNA of the skin cells can still occur. As this radiation damage accumulates, the risk of skin cancer becomes more likely.
Makeup, however, is a true sun block, and a good makeup will actually block more sun than a sunscreen, which only reduces exposure. The pigment color acts as a barrier to the sun, and if it is thick enough or dark enough, it will act as a total sun block. Makeup foundation is composed of micronized powder and minerals in a liquid base. This powder acts as a reflector to the sun's radiation. When the makeup contains minerals, it also acts and an antioxidant and helps repair sun damage.
Now, many younger women do not need to wear foundation to cover up wrinkles or spots or other cosmetic flaws, but in terms of preventing skin cancer, the younger you wear makeup, the better! Of course, most women do not wear makeup to the beach or pool, and there are obviously practical issues of wearing foundation in situations where you will be swimming or perspiring.
But here are some tips for using makeup for sun protection:
—Younger women age 15-25 should use foundation that is not oily so as to not increase the incidence of acne. (Moms of young teens may not want their daughters in makeup this young, but the skin cancer protection should be considered.) Older women can use a more moisturizing foundation.
—Look for foundations with a high SPF. An SPF of 15 is good, but one with an SPF of 30 is even better.
—Look for brand names
—Look for foundations that include micronized powders and minerals.
—Make sure to apply evenly.
Dr. Manny Alvarez is the managing editor of health news at FOXNews.com, and is a regular medical contributor on the FOX News Channel. He is chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Additionally, Alvarez is Adjunct Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.
Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Click here for more information on Dr. Manny's work with Hackensack University Medical Center. Visit AskDrManny.com for more.