Protect yourself from unseasonably warm weather

By Dr. Bing Ngo

Categories: Featured News, Cancer
Winter means shorter days, but in Orange County, even those short days are sunny.

So when you step outside this weekend to enjoy the warm February forecast, don't forget to grab your sunscreen to protect yourself against damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., affecting 1 in 5 Americans and killing more than 9,000 people per year. One reason for skin cancer's large reach is that we tend to let our guards down during the winter, forgetting hats and sunscreen and exposing our heads, faces and necks to UV radiation in ways we might not during warmer summer months.

The truth is UV radiation is damaging all year round — particularly in Orange County, which has one of the highest incidents of melanoma in the country.

Even dreary days offer no protection against skin cancer. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatologists said that up to 80% of the sun's UV rays are able to pass through clouds. And UV rays can even reflect off clouds' edges, intensifying the level of UV radiation reaching you.

While bodies might be bundled up and protected from these rays, faces, scalps and necks tend to be left uncovered and vulnerable all year round. The deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma, is particularly brutal when it develops on the scalp and neck. In fact, patients with melanomas in those areas are almost twice as likely to die as patients with melanomas on other areas.

That is why I always tell my patients to remember their hats and sunscreen along with their jackets during the winter. For sunscreen, look for one that offers both UVA and UVB protection with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher. As for hats, wide brims that offer more coverage, dark colors that absorb more UV radiation and dense, closed-weave fabrics offer the best protection.

If you must go hatless, consider applying sunscreen to any exposed skin or including where the hair is thinning.

While prevention is the best weapon in the fight against skin cancer, early detection is the next line of defense. So winter is also a good time to visit the dermatologist for mole mapping and skin health screening.

Patients who have a personal or family history of melanoma, often require a high-tech approach to evaluating changes to the skin. The Hoag Melanoma/Advanced Skin Cancer Program, for instance, offers evaluation by a Fotofinder unit, an advanced imaging system, which scans the entire skin surface for areas that could later develop into melanoma.

If cancer is detected, early treatment is highly recommended, as skin cancer can spread quickly. Thankfully patients have more options today than ever before. Through a special alliance with USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer, Hoag's program focuses on advanced surgery, therapeutics and clinical trials to help skin cancer patients beat the odds. But while advances are constantly being made in treatment, prevention is still the goal.

So put on your hat, slap on the sunscreen, and enjoy Orange County's enviable winter weather safely.

BINH NGO, M.D. is lead dermatologist for Hoag's High Risk Melanoma Clinic and a high-risk dermatologist from the Keck USC School of Medicine.