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Are you protecting your skin?

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The Echo Press ran a short news story in the Feb. 8 issue, "Melanoma rates on the rise," which piqued interest among readers. It was among the top read online stories that day.

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That was good to see. The more people are informed of health problems and the better prepared they are to prevent them from happening, the better off they will be. Having that knowledge can not only save the lives of yourself and loved ones, but also keep health care costs down for everyone.

The story noted that new data from the Minnesota Department of Health shows that skin cancer continues to be one of the most rapidly increasing types of cancer among Minnesota residents. Between 2005 and 2009, melanoma rates in the state increased by 35 percent for males and 38 percent for females.

About 1,460 Minnesotans were diagnosed with invasive melanoma of the skin in 2009. That's nearly three times more than were diagnosed in 1988.

Skin cancer can affect anyone, no matter their age or skin color, yet it is a highly preventable and treatable disease.

So what can you do to reduce your risk? The Skin Cancer Foundation came up with an easy-to-remember acronym that can help. It's called SKIN:

Skip the tanning bed. New research reveals that just one indoor UV tanning session increases the risk of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, by 20 percent, and each additional session during the same year boosts the risk almost another 2 percent, according to the foundation. Each year in the U.S. more than 9,000 people die of melanoma. Overall, indoor UV tanners are 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma than those who have never tanned indoors, and those who begin tanning before the age of 35 increase their melanoma risk by almost 90 percent.

Keep up with skin exams. Skin cancers found and removed early are almost always curable. The five-year survival rate for patients whose melanoma is detected early, before the tumor has penetrated the skin, is about 98 percent. The survival rate falls significantly when the disease has the chance to metastasize (spread) throughout the body. Check your skin from head-to-toe each month, and visit a dermatologist annually for a professional skin exam. If you notice any change in an existing mole or discover a new one that looks suspicious, see a physician immediately.

Ignore the myths (and learn the facts). There are many misconceptions surrounding skin health, particularly when it comes to skin cancer and sun protection. For example, spending time outdoors without sun protection is not the best way to obtain vitamin D; doing so will increase your risk of skin cancers, premature skin aging and a weakened immune system. Vitamin D can be acquired safely through diet and supplements. Another common myth is that you need sun protection only on sunny days. The intensity of the sun's UV rays is not simply linked to air temperature, and while bright, hot, sunny days always pose UV risks, you can damage your skin on cold or cloudy days as well. This is because even when it's overcast, between 50 and 80 percent of UV rays penetrate the clouds to reach the skin.

Never skimp on sun protection (even indoors). The foundation recommends adopting a complete sun-protection regimen: Cover up with protective clothing (including wide-brimmed hats and UV-blocking sunglasses), seek shade between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and wear sunscreen every day. Because UVA radiation can pass through glass, be mindful of sun protection even while at home and in the car. Consider installing window film, which can block almost 100 percent of UVA radiation from penetrating glass.

Most people only think about skin threats in the summertime when they worry about sunburn, but healthy skin habits should be practiced all year long. It's too real of a risk to ignore.

Alexandria Echo Press

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