Skin cancer screening and prevention

Just using a good sunscreen may not be enough when the sun threatens your skin with harmful ultraviolet rays. “Sunburn damage to the skin is a direct cause of skin cancer,” says Algin Garrett, M.D., a skin cancer specialist at VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center and chair of the Department of Dermatology at VCU Medical Center. "Skin cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer in the U.S., and its incidences are rising.”

“This also means that the most important avoidable cause of cancer we know of is exposure to ultraviolet radiation," Dr. Garrett concludes.

“Some chemotherapy agents make patients more prone to sunburn,” warns Massey oncologist Mary Helen Hackney, M.D. “Patients should discuss this issue with their medical team, and limit exposure if receiving one of these drugs.”

Massey radiation oncologist Doug Arthur, M.D., agrees. “Any patient undergoing radiation therapy can exhibit hypersensitivity to sunlight or UV light, and must wear sun block with a high protection factor, as well as clothing over all regions treated. This is a long-term problem and must be treated accordingly."

Learn how to protect yourself by being sun-smart

  • Avoid excessive sun exposure year round. UV rays can cause skin damage during any season or temperature, and even on cloudy or hazy days. 
  • When possible, stay out of the sun during the middle of the day, when UV rays are the strongest.
  • Cover up. Wear protective clothing, such as a wide-brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirt and long pants. Protect your eyes with wraparound sunglasses that filter out 100 percent of UV rays.
  • Always use a broad-spectrum (protection against both UVA and UVB rays) sunscreen and lip balm/protectant with at least sun protection factor (SPF) of 15. Apply liberally and reapply as indicated by the manufacturer’s directions.
  • Trust but verify. You may be doing a great job of following the guidelines above. Nevertheless, do a thorough examination of your skin once a month, top and bottom, front and back. If you see spots, blemishes or moles that are changing, ask for some advice from a medical professional.

How to perform a skin self-examination

Finding suspicious moles or skin cancer early is the key to treating skin cancer successfully. A skin self-examination is usually the first step in detecting skin cancer.

The following suggested method of self-examination is from the American Cancer Society.  You will need a full-length mirror, a hand mirror and a brightly lit room:

  • Examine your body front and back in mirror, then the right and left sides with your arms raised.
  • Bend your elbows, look carefully at your forearms, the back of your upper arms and the palms of your hands.
  • Look at backs of your legs and feet, spaces between your toes and the soles of your feet.
  • Examine the back of your neck and scalp with a hand mirror.
  • Check your back and buttocks with a hand mirror.
  • Become familiar with your skin and the pattern of your moles, freckles and other marks.
  • Be alert to changes in the number, size, shape and color of pigmented areas.
  • When examining moles or other pigmented areas, consult your physician promptly if you notice any changes.