In their lifetime, 1 out of 5 Americans will develop skin cancer, making it the most common form of cancer in the United States. May is Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month, focusing on raising awareness about the main causes of skin cancer, how skin cancer is detected, and how it can be prevented.
Each year, more than 5.4 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed. The most common types of skin cancer are basal cell cancer and squamous cell cancer, which usually form on the head, face, neck, hands, and arms. The outlooks for these two types of skin cancer are generally good, and improve when the cancer is detected early. Melanoma is a less common type of skin cancer, but has a more variable prognosis and accounts for a majority of skin cancer deaths.
What causes skin cancer
Skin cancer can be caused by excessive sun exposure. UV rays given off by the sun eventually cause the skin to tan or burn, but can also damage the DNA of skin cells. As skin cells become burnt or damaged, they die and the body must replace them with new cells. Anytime cells within the body are replaced, there is a chance that during the replacement process they may mutate into cancerous cells. Skin cancer occurs when the body replaces dead skin cells with abnormal, cancerous cells. Like UV rays, excessive exposure to radiation can also increase the risk of developing skin cancer. The body can be exposed to radiation through X-rays, nuclear power plans or cancer treatment.
Individuals with relatives who have been affected by skin cancer are at a higher risk of developing skin cancer themselves. Individuals who are over 40 years of age, fair skinned, or have preexisting moles are at a greater risk as well.
How is skin cancer detected
Typically, skin cancer causes visible changes to the skin. These changes include the appearance of a new mark on the skin, a change in size or color of a preexisting mark, pain, itching or burning around a certain area, or a change in texture of the skin. Symptoms of basal cell cancer include a growth on the skin that appears to be waxy, light colored, brown, or scaly. These spots are usually painless and slow growing, but can become sores or scar-like. The main symptom of squamous cell cancer is a growth that is rough, scaly, crusted and accompanied by flat red patches. Symptoms of melanoma can be best remembered by the ABCDE acronym. Moles, growths, or sores on the skin that are Asymmetrical, have irregular Borders, have variations in Color, have a Diameter larger than a pencil eraser, or have an appearance that continues to change and Evolve, may be melanoma.
Checking your body for new lesions and symptoms of skin cancer is an important step in the detection process. While your healthcare provider may notice an abnormal spot during a visit, regularly checking your skin can help you detect anything unhealthy sooner. If you or your healthcare provider notice an abnormal or new spot on your skin, your healthcare provider will examine the area. They may perform a skin biopsy in order to test the area for cancerous cells. There are different types of skin biopsies that can be performed based on the symptoms of the affected area. During a skin biopsy, a small sample of skin will be removed and sent to a laboratory for testing. Skin biopsies are usually the only test necessary to diagnose basal and squamous cell skin cancer. If melanoma is detected, additional tests such as CT scans or X-rays may be done to determine if the cancer has spread anywhere else in the body.
What are the most important things you can do to prevent skin cancer
The best way to prevent skin cancer is to reduce sun exposure. This can be done in many different ways. Sun exposure can be reduced by wearing long-sleeve shirts or long-pants, which don’t allow UV rays to reach your skin. Avoiding being outside for long periods of time, especially when the sun’s UV rays are the strongest between 10am and 4pm, will also reduce sun exposure. Artificial UV rays, from tanning beds or sun lamps, are also strong and should be avoided. Each time you use a tanning bed, you are directly increasing your risk of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Some myths claim that indoor tanning is an appropriate way to get a “base tan” to help avoid stronger burns in the future, and a safe way to get vitamin D. Neither of these myths are true.
Sunscreen is another great way to reduce sun exposure when it is at least 30 SPF, water-resistant, and blocks both UVA and UVB light. Sunscreen should be applied to exposed areas of the body 30 minutes before spending time in the sun, and reapplied after swimming or sweating. For more information about SPF and choosing the right sunscreen, read iTriage’s infographic on the subject.
To prevent the progression of skin cancer, the American Cancer Society recommends that individuals who are at a high risk of developing skin cancer receive regular skin exams from their doctor. High risk individuals include those over the age of 40, fair skinned, or with a family history of skin cancer. Additionally, they recommend examining your own skin once a month. If you have been diagnosed with skin cancer, you should schedule regular skin exams to check for the spread or return of the cancer.