An image of sunglasses in the sunshine is used to illustrate the concept of protecting the skin from the sun, to prevent skin cancer.

Sunny days can range from glorious as winter leaves to stiflingly hot in the dead of summer —but either way, it’s wise to be a sun-savvy massage therapist. May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and so the perfect time to share strategies for keeping your skin healthy.

Aside from the reality that too much sun exposure can cause damage, there is more to know about the sun and its effects on the largest organ of the body, the skin. Skin cancer is a leading type of cancer, and as someone who works with skin, you can understand why it’s a good idea to know the primary signs of a suspicious-looking area.

Massage therapists know the ins and outs of muscle tissue, but the dermis layer we touch to get to the muscle is often taken for granted. Let’s shine some light on the signs of skin cancer and review what to do when you see a questionable area on your skin.

Three Major Types of Skin Cancer

Skin cancer comes in many forms, but these three are the most prevalent:

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. It usually appears as a white lump or brown scaly patch on an area of the body that is constantly exposed to the sun. The head, neck and face are common places basal cells occur. This type of cancer is rarely fatal and can be treated in various ways.

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, squamous cells lie deeper in the skin but still arise in areas regularly exposed to the sun. They may appear wart-like, as red, scaly patches, or even occasionally bleed. Like basal cell carcinoma, squamous cells are usually not fatal and are very treatable.

Melanoma is the most severe form of skin cancer. Melanoma is more likely to grow and spread than the other two most common types of cancer. Melanoma can spread beyond the skin to other body organs, making it critical to catch and treat early.

A new mole, as well as sores, lumps, blemishes, markings, or changes in the way an area of the skin looks or feels, may be signs of melanoma. Treatment may involve surgery, radiation, medications, or in some cases, chemotherapy.

Causes of Skin Cancer

Skin cancer develops based on the combination of two major factors:

Genetics: Skin pigments are different from one person to the next. Some skin pigments are more susceptible to sun damage, including melanoma. Most melanoma is not inherited, but the type of skin you are born with is.

Environment: Your ancestry is something you can’t control, but your exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays is under your control. The hard part is the damage may have been done years ago. Skin cancer can show up 20 years after prolonged exposure to the sun, tanning beds or severe burns.

Melanoma is cancer that can also arise in an area of no sun exposure; melanoma has been found between the toes, palms, scalps and soles of feet. Due to the severity of melanoma, it is good practice to make an appointment with a dermatologist right away, as this medical professional can discern if the questionable area is indeed cancerous.

Genetics + environment: The area you live in affects your sun exposure as well as your outdoor activities. It is believed a combination of genetic and environmental exposure to UV radiation from the sun is the leading cause of melanoma.

Watch for Signs of Change

Watch your skin for signs of change. Keep an eye on moles and other areas with a mirror or the assistance of a partner, friend or dermatologist to help with the health of your skin, especially in places you can’t easily see, like your back.

Watch for moles and other freckle-like marks on the skin to change shape or size. The Mayo Clinic provides the following ABCDEs to guide us in what to look for and when it’s a concern:

A is for asymmetrical shape.

B is for irregular border.

C is for changes in color.

D is for diameter. Watch for a change in size over time.

E is for evolving. Moles may evolve in any of these ways and even develop into itchiness or bleeding.

Cancerous moles vary widely in appearance. Some may show multiple of the above changes, and others may reveal one or two. Visit this Mayo Clinic resource page for more information.)

When you notice an area you need clarification about, make an appointment with your dermatologist. Tell them what you see or that you think the mole has grown, for example.

Sun Health When Working an Outdoor Event

Remember to wear highly protective sunscreen when you work outdoors as part of your own sun awareness and self-care.

Taking part in health fairs or fun runs is an excellent way to gain visibility for your massage business. I was invited to do chair massage on the ninth hole in a fundraising golf tournament. The scenery was beautiful, it supported a charity, and you better believe I had my hat and lots of sunscreen.

Pick a sunscreen with an SPF of 50 or higher and reapply it often. Check its expiration date and be sure to use the amount recommended by the manufacturer. Cover your face, neck and ears with the help of a hat, and work under a tent if at all possible.

Angela Lehman

About the Author

Angela Lehman is a massage therapist of 25 years turned online educator, promoting fitness and nutrition for massage therapists. She runs The Fit MT. With her kinesiology degree specialized in nutrition, she trains therapists in healthy eating, exercise and body mechanics to prolong their careers. Search to read her The Fit MT column on topics including body mechanics, gut health and more.