Skin cancer is the most common kind of cancer in both the United States and globally. In fact, more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other cancers combined. In the U.S. alone, over 9,500 people are diagnosed with it every single day – over 3.4 million people every year. On average, one in five people will develop skin cancer before the age of 70.
What Is Skin Cancer?
Our bodies are composed of millions of living cells, and they grow, divide, and die in an orderly fashion. Cancerous cells, however, grow abnormally – they grow and divide, but don’t die. Additionally, cancer cells can invade adjoining tissues and travel to other areas of the body via the bloodstream or lymphatic vessels (metastasize).
Skin cancer occurs in the epidermis, the outermost layer of skin. There are many different types of skin cancer, but they are all caused by rogue cells created by unrepaired DNA, which causes mutations. These mutations proliferate and form malignant tumors. The three most common types of skin cancer are:
- Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) – 80% – most curable
- Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) – 16%
- Melanoma – 4% – most lethal
Symptoms of Skin Cancer
Skin cancer is usually asymptomatic in the beginning, but one of the most common symptoms is a noticeable change to your skin. Some of the most recognizable warning signs include:
- New or changing skin lesions that look different from the rest of your moles
- Non-healing sores or lesions
- Spread of pigment from the border of a mole
- Redness and/or swelling beyond the edge of a mole
- Change in sensation – lesions or moles that become itchy or tender
- Change in the surface of a mole – scaly, oozing, bleeding, nodular (bumpy)
Although melanoma is less frequent than basal or squamous cell carcinomas, it tends to be far more deadly because it spreads to the blood or lymphatic vessels faster. Melanoma develops from melanocytes – skin cells that produce pigment. Melanomas generally resemble moles and occasionally may arise from them even in areas not regularly exposed to the sun. Early detection of melanoma is critical, and when found early, the 5-year survival rate is 99%.
One way to ensure early detection of melanoma is through the A-B-C-D-E warning signs, as follows:
A – asymmetrical overall shape
B – border is irregular or jagged
C – color is uneven
D – diameter is greater than 6mm (the size of a pea)
E – evolving in shape, size, or color over the past few weeks or months
In addition to this, the most common form of precancer is actinic (solar) keratosis (AK). It is prevalent – affecting 58 million Americans. AKs usually appear as small, dry, scaly, or crusty patches of skin. They can range in color and can be either flat or raised. Due to their rough texture, they are typically easier to feel than to see. AKs are most often found on sun-exposed areas of the face, lips, ears, scalp, shoulders, neck, and back of the hands or forearms.
Other common premalignant skin tumors include:
- Cutaneous horn
- Radiation dermatitis
- Dysplastic nevus
- Congenital nevus (a.k.a. Hairy nevus)
Risk Factors for Skin Cancer
Those who spend large amounts of time in the sun or UV light (such as tanning beds) are at a much higher risk for developing any form of skin cancer. Having even just five sunburns in your life doubles your risk of developing skin cancer. Additionally, it is inversely related to the level of pigmentation you have – those with fairer skin are most susceptible.
While exposure to sun and UV light is the most common risk factor, skin cancer can also develop from years of therapeutic x-rays or exposure to carcinogens such as arsenic ingestion. Other risk factors include a family history of skin cancers, a tendency to freckle or burn easily, and patients with cancer, autoimmune diseases, organ transplants, or those taking immunosuppressive drugs.
How to Prevent or Lower Your Risk of Skin Cancer
One of the best things you can do for your skin is to protect it from the sun because most skin cancers are directly related to ultraviolet (UV) exposure. Here are some helpful tips for reducing your exposure:
- Seek shade and minimize outdoor activities, if possible, between 10 am and 4 pm when the sun’s rays are strongest
- Avoid sunbathing and tanning beds
- Use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 that has broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection with ingredients like Parsol 1798 (a.k.a. avobenzone) or titanium dioxide
- Reapply sunscreen often – at least every 2 hours especially if you’ve been swimming or sweating
- Wear lip balm with an SPF of at least 15
- Wear protective clothing such as wide-brimmed hats, long sleeves, and pants
- Wear UV-protective sunglasses to protect your eyes
- Verify with your doctor if any medication you are taking makes your skin more sensitive to the sun’s harmful rays
Skin cancer is highly preventable, and when found early, is also highly treatable. To ensure early detection, we recommend that you perform thorough skin checks at least once per month. Do these in a well-lit room in front of a full-length mirror if possible. Check your entire body for new or suspicious changes to your skin, such as moles and rough patches of skin. If you find anything new or concerning, contact your doctor as soon as possible so they can evaluate it and perform a biopsy, if necessary.
If you have questions about skin cancer and treatment options or to schedule an appointment, please call the Caudle Center today at (423) 926-2400.