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Time for a skin cancer screening?

Folks who live in Florida have a special relationship with the sun. After all, this is the Sunshine State. And whether we've lived here all our lives or come along later, many Floridians, especially seniors, have had decades of exposure to the Florida sun.

The result, for many, can be skin damage from the sun's ultraviolet rays. Statistics bear this out. One in five people will develop some form of skin cancer by the time they're 70, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. More dramatically, 5 million people die each year worldwide from melanoma, the most virulent form of skin cancer.

Fortunately, there are lots of proactive things people can do to enjoy the sun and protect themselves in the process.

And with Skin Cancer Awareness Month on the way in May, it's a good time to talk about them.

The best sun protection, according to Dr. Nishit Patel, associate professor of dermatology at the University of South Florida, is sunscreen. Lots of sunscreen.

"In the real world, people don't put as much sunscreen on as they're supposed to," he said. Patel said that any sunscreen with an SPF of 30 is sufficient protection. Studies suggest that level of protection can last up to 300 minutes, he said.

"But there's a lot more that you can do for sun protection," he added. Patel, 32, recommends clothing with built-in sunscreen protection, as well as a broad-brimmed hat to protect not just the face, but the ears and back of the neck, which are often overlooked.

Another precaution is to limit your sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV rays are strongest. "And just because it's overcast doesn't mean you can't get a sunburn," he said.

You also need to be vigilant about checking your skin.

The Skin Cancer Foundation urges head-to-toe examinations once a month.

"We know the amount of (sun) exposure to the skin is accumulative," Patel said. "People with a lot more time on the planet have a lot more exposure, (so) monitoring is more important."

Monitoring can be done at home, either through self-examination or with the help of a significant other, or at a doctor's office. An initial exam will establish what is on your body in terms of moles and blemishes. Once there's a baseline, be on the lookout for any changes.

According to doctors and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pay particular attention to the ABCDEs of melanoma:

A: Look for asymmetrical or irregular shape.

B: Is the border irregular or ragged?

C: Has the color changed?

D: Look at the diameter. Is it larger than the eraser on a No. 2 pencil?

E: Is the spot or mole evolving? Has it changed in the past few weeks or months?

If any of these raise a question or concern, see a medical professional, Patel urged. There are other risk factors to consider, he said. People with fair skin, light-colored eyes or red hair are more susceptible to sun damage. In addition, "A sunburn as a child increases the risk of melanoma," Patel said.

Other screening resources include Morton Plant Mease's annual Melanoma Monday event, which this year is May 7, and Moffitt Cancer Center's Mole Patrol, which offers free skin cancer checks around the Tampa Bay area, making stops at Pier 60 on Clearwater Beach and at several Tampa Bay Rays spring training games.

The next Mole Patrol screening at Pier 60 is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. July 28, weather permitting. A half-dozen physicians as well as technicians and volunteers will be set up on the pier, under cover, to offer complimentary examinations, according to Dr. Jane Messina, senior member, Anatomic Pathology and Cutaneous Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center. The Mole Patrol also will be at MacDill Air Force Base's AirFest from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 12.

During last year's Pier 60 Mole Patrol visit, 349 people were screened, a Moffitt spokesman said.

Each Mole Patrol exam takes about 10 minutes. For a full-body check, there is a bus waiting nearby. "Mostly, it's women who come up first while the husbands wait," Messina said. "Then the husbands will come up."

After the screening, a sunbather is given a recommendation that can range from "come back next year or go see a medical professional for a biopsy," she said. There also is literature about proper sunscreen application and other skin protection options.

"Screening saves lives," said Messina, 55. "If something is diagnosed early, you've got a better chance of having the best treatment and living longer. Skin cancer screening is the easiest type of screening: No pain, no prior preparation, just show up and let us do the rest."

"We've gotten really good at catching skin cancer through early detection and treatment," said USF's Patel. "When things go undiagnosed, melanoma will cause people to die.

"Caught early, at the first level of the skin, the survival rate is excellent."

Contact Fred W. Wright Jr. at