How to Protect Yourself from Skin Cancer

Summer in New Mexico means spending time outside enjoying activities that make New Mexico such a wonderful place to live. In moderation, sun exposure can be beneficial by enhancing bone health, improving sleep and easing mild depression. However, even after a short period of direct exposure, the sun’s rays can become more harmful than helpful.

In New Mexico, we are at higher risk of sun damage and sunburns because not only is it sunny and warm, but we are at high altitude where the sun’s rays are more intense. Extensive lifetime sun exposure or occasional intense exposure, especially without sunscreen, increases your skin cancer risks. Artificial sources, such as sunlamps and tanning beds, also produce UV light that can damage skin.

The main types of UV rays that can affect your skin include UVA rays and UVB rays. UVB rays have more energy and are a more potent cause of at least some skin cancers, but both UVA and UVB rays can damage skin and cause skin cancer. There are no safe UV rays.

There are three main types of skin cancer. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. Fortunately, basal cell skin cancers are slow growing, very treatable and seldom spread. This cancer can appear as a sore that does not heal or a firm lump that can be red, white or brown. It is important to seek treatment because, although it rarely occurs, untreated basal cell cancers can spread and invade other tissues.

Squamous cell carcinoma of the skin is the second most common type of skin cancer. Symptoms include a sore that won’t heal, a lump in the skin or other skin changes. Squamous cell cancer grows more rapidly than basal cell cancers and the risk of spread or metastasis is higher than basal cell carcinomas.

Melanoma is less common than the other two cancers but is the most serious. This type of cancer originates in melanin-producing cells and usually appears as a brown, black or red spot that has an irregular border. The good news is that when melanoma is caught early, there is a very high likelihood of cure.

If you have skin cancer, finding it early is the best way to make sure it can be treated successfully. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) concluded that there is not enough evidence for or against routine screening for skin cancers by a provider. This is for general population without known skin cancer or skin cancer risk. Regular skin self-exams are especially important for people who are at higher risk of skin cancer, such as people with reduced immunity, people who have had skin cancer before, and people with a strong family history of skin cancer. Talk to your doctor about how often you should examine your skin.

There are some simple steps you can take to limit your exposure to UV rays and the American Cancer Society recommends staying in the shade as one of the best ways to limit your UV expose. Other tips include:

  • Seek shade: Limit your direct exposure to the sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV rays are strongest.
  • Cover up: When you are out, wear clothing and a wide-brimmed hat to protect as much skin as possible.
  • Protect your eyes with wrap-around sunglasses that block at least 99% of UV light.
  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that filters out both UVA and UVB rays and has an SPF of 15 or higher before you go outside. Don’t forget to put a thick layer on all exposed skin. Remember, sunscreen works best when combined with other options. Reapply at least every 2 hours, as well as after swimming or sweating.
  • Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps: Both can cause serious long-term skin damage and contribute to skin cancer.


By Latha Shankar, Chief Medical Officer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico