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5 Steps to Prevent Skin Cancer

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Tom Corbett/

Beneficial Foods

According to the latest research, diets rich in certain nutrients may reduce your risk of skin cancer and pre-cancers, says Jane Grant-Kels, M.D., director of the cutaneous oncology and melanoma program at University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington. Certain foods help the body develop its own protective barrier from the sun, fight free radical damage and boost your immune system.

Omega Fatty Acids: Animal testing and epidemiologic studies have found that a diet rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids lowers the risk of non-melanoma skin cancers, says Dr. Grant-Kels. Two fatty acids stand out: linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6; and alpha linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3. "LA has a positive impact on the barrier function of the top layer of skin," says Dr. Grant-Kels. "And ALA improves the function of your immune system." LA is found in many oils, including safflower, grape seed, sunflower and corn. ALA comes from green leafy vegetables, flaxseed and walnuts, as well as soybean and canola oils. Cold-water fish, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring and rainbow trout, are rich in other beneficial omegas.

Green Tea: Polyphenols, the potent antioxidants in green tea, are thought to repair damaged DNA and stimulate the immune system, says Santosh Katiyar, Ph.D., senior scientist at the Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of Alabama at Birmingham. In one study Katiyar exposed mice to UV, while spiking their water with green tea polyphenols. The tea-guzzling mice had 60% to 75% fewer skin cancers than controls. "People should drink about four cups of green tea every day for the same level of prevention," says Katiyar.

Early Detection

Catching skin cancers early can save your skin, if not your life. The five-year survival rate for melanoma when detected before it has started to spread is 99%, but it plummets to 15% when found at an advanced stage. When non-melanoma cancers such as squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas are small, they can typically be removed with minimal damage to your skin. When they are larger, the surgery can be disfiguring, and some rare cases can even be fatal. Despite the benefits of early detection, most Americans don't do monthly skin exams or get their skin checked by a doctor. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that most people check their entire body (with the help of a mirror) every month. Those with a personal or family history of melanoma or dysplastic nevi (moles that are not round and uniform), or who have more than 50 moles need to see a dermatologist at least annually, says Steven Wang, M.D., director of dermatological surgery and dermatology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, and author of Beating Melanoma (Johns Hopkins Press). Even if you have no risk factors, make an appointment with a dermatologist and discuss when to return for follow-up checkups.