‘It can get everybody:’ Local doctor diagnoses up to 15 cases of skin cancer daily

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The most preventable cause of skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, either from the sun or from artificial sources like tanning beds, according to the Centers for Disease Control. (file photo)
The most preventable cause of skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, either from the sun or from artificial sources like tanning beds, according to the Centers for Disease Control. (file photo)

It’s a potentially disfiguring cancer. It can be deadly. And screening for it doesn’t generally require high-tech scans or anesthesia, just a trip to the dermatologist.

Yet according to Dr. Donna Corvette, a board-certified dermatologist at the Dermatology Center of Williamsburg, 5335 Discovery Park Blvd., people often delay having a doctor look at a potential skin cancer, sometimes until it’s too late.

“The big thing people really need to hear is, ‘Don’t wait,’” Corvette said in a recent phone interview. “Most patients notice their skin cancers and then ignore them.”

Unlike breast cancer or colon cancer, skin cancer doesn’t lurk inside the body, visible through tests such as mammography or CT-scans. It can manifest as an unusual growth or a changing mole, found anywhere from the scalp to the toes. And it’s the most common cancer in the U.S. according to the Centers for Disease Control. 

“It can get everybody,” said Corvette, who diagnoses about 10 to 15 skin cancers a day.

There are three different kinds of skin cancer, most of which are caused by UV light exposure. The most common skin cancers, according to the CDC, are basal cell and squamous cell. They are treatable and curable, but treatment can be disfiguring.

The third and most potentially serious kind is melanoma, which accounts for fewer than 5 percent of skin-cancer diagnoses and the majority of skin cancer deaths, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; about 230 people died of melanoma in Virginia every year between 2005 and 2009.

During that same period, James City County had the highest rate of new melanoma diagnoses in Virginia and in the country overall, the EPA reports; the county’s diagnosis rate was 127 percent higher than the national average. Yet according to the EPA, a 2007 survey found that one-third of Virginia adults had reported suffering a sunburn – a significant skin cancer risk – in the past year.

So other than stay inside, what can you do?

First of all, be on the lookout. Things to watch for include a changing mole, a scaly spot that doesn’t go away or something that bleeds, Corvette said.

If you see something suspicious, within no more than a month you should go to the dermatologist, preferably a board-certified one, Corvette said. 

“You can’t be your own doctor,” she added. “It’s a very serious thing.”

In addition, get a regular screening exam, every six to 12 months, Corvette said, especially if you have a family history of skin cancer.

And stay out of tanning salons and avoid getting tan or burned.

“All tans are bad tans,” Corvette said. “All tans equal skin damage.”

Skin cancer, she added, is very much related to sun exposure over a person’s lifetime: Eighty to ninety percent of damage occurs before the age of 18. She sees patients from virtually every age group, with skin cancers in patients age 20 and above.

“The skin never forgets a tan or a burn,” she said.

Here are some other skin-cancer prevention tips, courtesy of the CDC:

  • Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher and reapply it every two hours and after sweating or swimming. 
  • Wear long sleeves, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.
  • Stay in the shade, and wear protective clothing and sunscreen even in the shade.

For more information, go here or here.

WYDaily does not offer medical advice. For any concerns, you should consult a doctor.