Skin cancer is the most prevalent of all types of cancers. It is estimated that more than one million Americans develop skin cancer every year.
Sun avoidance is the best defense against skin cancer! Over-exposure to sunlight (including tanning) is the main cause of skin cancer especially when it results in sunburn and blistering. Fair skinned people who sunburn easily are at particularly high risk for skin cancer.
Prevention means guarding the skin against the known causes of skin cancer. Since the sun’s ultraviolet rays are the main culprit, the most effective preventive method is sun avoidance. Other skin-protective measures include:
- Seek shade between 10:00 A.M. and 4:00 P.M. when the UV rays are the most intense
- Wear light colored, tightly-woven protective clothing and wide-brimmed hats
- Apply sunscreens with a SPF of at least 30
It is recommended to begin early use of sun protection in childhood because it is estimated that 80 percent of lifetime sun exposure occurs before age 18. Children under six months of age should not have prolonged sun exposure.
Early detection is the surest way to a cure. Develop a regular routine to inspect your body for any skin changes. If any growth, mole, sore, or skin discoloration appears suddenly or begins to change, see your dermatologist.
Precancerous Skin Conditions
Actinic keratoses are small, scaly spots most commonly found on the face, ears, neck, lower arms, and back of the hands in fair-skinned individuals who have had significant sun exposure. Actinic keratoses can be removed by cryotherapy (freezing) or by applying a cream form of chemotherapy.
Cancerous Skin Condititons
There are three forms of skin cancer:
Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC)
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer and appears frequently on the head, neck, and hands as a small, fleshy bump, nodule, or red patch. Other parts of the body may be affected as well. Basal cell carcinomas are frequently found in fair-skinned people and rarely occur in dark skin. They do not spread quickly. It can take many months or years for one to grow to a diameter of one-half inch. Untreated, the cancer often will begin to bleed, crust over, heal, and repeat the cycle.
Although this type of cancer rarely metastasizes (spreads to other parts of the body), it can extend below the skin, causing considerable local damage.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)
Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common skin cancer; it is primarily found in fair-skinned people and rarely in dark-skinned individuals. Typically located on the rim of the ear, the face, lips, and mouth, this cancer may appear as a bump, or as a red, scaly patch. Unlike basal cell carcinoma, this form of cancer can metastasize (spread to other parts of the body); therefore, it is important to get early treatment. When found early and treated properly, the cure rate for both basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas is over 95 percent.
Malignant melanoma is the most deadly of all skin cancers. Every year, an estimated 7,700 Americans will die from melanoma; it is projected that greater than 46,000 Americans will develop melanoma annually. The death rate is declining because patients are seeking help sooner and it is usually curable when detected in its early stages.
Melanoma may appear suddenly or begin in or near a mole, or another dark spot in the skin. It is important to know the location and appearance of the moles on the body to detect changes early. Any changing mole must be examined by a dermatologist. Early melanoma can be removed while still in the curable stage.
Excessive sun exposure, especially sunburn, is the most important preventable cause of melanoma. Light-skinned individuals are at particular risk.
Treatment of Skin Cancer
If a skin biopsy reveals cancer, the dermatologist has an array of medical and surgical procedures as treatment depending upon the type of cancer, its location, and the needs of the individual.
Dermatologists recommend that one helpful way to discover early skin cancers is to do periodic self examinations. Get familiar with your skin and your own pattern of moles and freckles. Watch for changes in the number, size, shape, and color of pigmented areas. Call your dermatologist if any changes are noticed.