Health experts: Take proper precautions in sun

Clarence Plank

Summer sun may be a pleasure but area cancer experts say safely enjoying the sun means taking proper precautions.

There are an estimated two million cases of skin cancer diagnosed yearly in the U.S. Most are considered to be sun-related, according to the American Cancer Society.

James Townson, 66, of Melrose is one of those cases. He’s battling a type of skin cancer called melanoma. Townson said when he learned he had skin cancer he was scared.

“They had checked a spot on my right forehead in August 2007,” Townson said. “Sure enough it came out melanoma cancer.”

Last year, another spot appeared on his head and grew in size.

“Last year they took a biopsy of the spot and couldn’t find anything,” Townson said. “I went back in January and said that something is wrong and they took another sample. It came back negative. By the middle of February I went back because the growth had increased in size. The pathologist said to go deeper with the biopsy and that’s when it came back that I had melanoma for a third time.”

The cancerous lesion was later removed, said Townson, who has to be checked every three months to see if the cancer has spread.

“In three years I’ve had three different surgeries for melanoma skin cancer,” Townson said. “When I was a kid I played baseball out in the sunshine and everything and had no effects. I went to the Navy and had no effects of it. I kept asking where it came from and they said you were out in the sunshine and got skin cancer.

“I have fair skin, blonde hair and have a fair complexion. They told me that I was the biggest target for melanoma skin cancer and I said, “Oh, why me?’ After they did the first surgery I thought ‘why didn’t I do something when I was a kid?’”

David Jones, a nurse practitioner at the Portales Medical Center, described the three most common types of skin cancer:

“Basal cell carcinoma is basically self-contained and doesn’t spread,” Jones said. “Next is squamous cell carcinoma, which can actually metastasize or spread to other regions of the body to organs or tissue.

“The worst of all skin cancers is melanoma and it is a very aggressive cancer that once it gets more than two millimeters below the skin, it can get into the lymphatic system and spread all over the body. It’s normally fatal.”

Jones said among people most at risk for developing skin cancer are farmers, ranchers, sun bathers and tanning bed users.

In 2009 there were a reported 420 estimated new skin cancer cases in New Mexico, according to John Weisgerber, American Cancer Society regional communications manager.

“Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer,” Weisgerber said. “The one good thing about skin cancer for the most part, if you follow early prevention and protection, it is something that can be treatable. The only problem is when it spreads to other body parts.”

Weisgerber said when it is localized in a mole or a certain spot 90 percent of those diagnosed can survive.

Jones said one of the warning signs is a lesion or mole that changes colors or size and is not a perfect circle. He also cautioned the lesion doesn’t necessarily have to be on an area of skin exposed to the sun.

“If it starts looking funny or if a lesion becomes scaly and will not heal or tends to bleed and not heal,” Jones said. “Or if a lesion tends to start growing fast. Those are things to look for in changes in shape, size and color.”