By Kim Polacek
May and its warmer, sunny days mark the unofficial start of the summer sunbathing season in most of America. It’s only fitting that May is also Skin Cancer Awareness Month, along with cautionary advice about UV exposure, sunscreen and skin protection.
So, what exactly are we being advised to protect ourselves against?
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States and UV exposure is its most preventable risk factor. Unprotected skin can be damaged by the sun’s UV rays in as little as 15 minutes. One in five Americans will develop some form of the disease before turning 70. A majority of those will be basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas. Both are curable with surgical removal of the cancerous tissue. However, 1% of those diagnosed will have melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.
Melanoma is fast growing and can spread to other parts of the body, making it deadly. Its incidence in the state of Florida is the second highest in the nation, behind California. But there is some encouraging news. Thanks to research and clinical advances, the number of people who die from melanoma has dropped by nearly 30% in the past three years.
Florida’s Moffitt Cancer Center is leading the way in breakthroughs for skin cancer. In 2008, the cancer center established the Donald A. Adam Melanoma and Skin Cancer Center of Excellence to bring researchers and clinicians from across disciplines to promote translational research, taking the discoveries in the lab directly to the patients. The goal was to improve diagnosis and increase treatment options for all types of skin cancer.
The effort, led by Drs. Keiran Smalley, Ken Tsai and Vernon Sondak, is paying off. Since 2011, 17 new therapies have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of melanoma and other skin cancers. Moffitt has been involved in the research or clinical trials that led to each of those approvals, helping millions of skin cancer patients worldwide.
Researchers within Moffitt’s Center of Excellence are working to help even more with studies of the signaling and molecular drivers of melanoma cells. They also participate in working groups focused on more rare subsets of melanoma, such as those that can develop in the eye or on the skin of the palms, foot soles and nail beds.
While scientists at Moffitt and elsewhere work to expand the tools needed to diagnose and treat skin cancers, the best possible advice for the rest of us during Skin Cancer Awareness Month is to take prevention seriously. Protect your skin from the sun and avoid indoor tanning.