Skin cancer might be the most common form of cancer in the United States right now, but luckily, it’s also one of the easiest types of cancer to treat.
What are the causes of skin cancer?
There are genetic risk factors (which we will discuss below), but skin cancer mainly occurs on skin areas that have had too much exposure to the sun. Sunlight, sun lamps, and tanning booth light contain ultraviolet (UV) light. Despite what you may have heard from older sources, both types of UV light (long-wave UVA and short-wave UVB) can cause skin cancer.
When your skin tans, the body attempts to protect itself from these harmful UV rays. Unfortunately, even if you avoid getting a sunburn, you’re exposing yourself to harm every time you tan—and that includes inside a tanning booth.
Because of the effects of UV light, skin cancer usually happens on the parts of the body that are in the most direct sunlight: your head, neck, face, tips of the ears, hands, forearms, shoulders, back, chest, and lower legs. These might be called skin cancer “hot spots,” but it’s still important to look for signs of skin cancer everywhere on the body.
What are the types of skin cancer?
The two types of skin cancer are called melanoma and nonmelanoma.
Melanoma’s name comes from its location in the skin cells that make the pigment called melanin. Only 2% of skin cancer cases are melanoma, but this type leads to more total deaths than the other type. This is because it’s aggressive, and if it’s not found early on its development, it can quickly spread to other cells around the body.
Nonmelanoma skin cancer is much more common and is a lot easier to treat because it grows slowly and generally doesn’t spread. Nonmelanoma has two additional subtypes, which get their names from the skin level they develop; basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.
What are the symptoms of skin cancer?
For the most part, any of a variety of changes in the appearance of the skin can be a sign of skin cancer. These changes can resemble a bump, growth, lesion, mole, or rough patch.
A normal and harmless mole can come in any flesh-tone shade, from light to dark, with clear and well-defined edges. It might be oval-shaped or round and flat or dome-like. It’s generally smaller than a quarter of an inch in diameter.
When you’re checking yourself for skin cancer, it’s important to remember this helpful acronym to tell you what to look for in moles: ABCDE.
A stands for asymmetry. The mole is an irregular shape—if you could hypothetically fold it in half, its two sides wouldn’t match.
B stands for border. The edges of the mole are poorly-defined and unclear. It might blend into the surrounding skin or appear to be jagged.
C stands for color. The mole has changed in color: darkening, losing color, spreading color, or developing multiple colors.
D stands for diameter. If the mole is larger than a pencil eraser, it could be skin cancer.
E stands for evolving. The mole looks different from other ones on your skin, or it has changed in its size, shape, or color.
Skin cancer can also look like:
- A mole that itches or bleeds
- A mole that grows quickly
- A skin growth that is scaly or crusty
- A sore that won’t heal
- A patch of skin that has changed color
How do I examine myself for skin cancer?
To have the best chance of fighting cancer, it’s important to detect possible cases early on by doing a skin check at regular intervals. Luckily, this is an easy process—all you need is a full-length mirror and a handheld one.
The first step is learning, over the course of time, what’s normal for your skin. Notice where your birthmarks, moles, and blemishes are and what they look like. This is so you can note any changes. Start paying attention to all of your skin.
When you do a check, look closely at your skin using the mirrors. Check the front and back of your body, the sides, your palms and forearms, your upper arms, the back and front of your legs, between your buttocks and around your genitals, the bottoms of your feet, between your toes, your face, your neck, and your scalp. (If you have long and/or thick hair, use a comb or a blow dryer to separate the hair so you can see better.)
If anything causes concern, it’s time to make a doctor’s appointment. Don’t panic, but keep in mind that early detection is the best way to treat skin cancer!
How is skin cancer treated?
If your doctor thinks you might have skin cancer, the first step in testing is to do a biopsy. This means that your doctor will remove a small piece of skin and send it to a lab for testing.
If those tests show that you have skin cancer, you will probably have to do some other tests to see whether the cancer cells have spread to other organs in the body. Those tests might include a CT scan, an MRI, or a lymph node biopsy.
How treatment goes after testing depends on:
- The type of skin cancer
- The location of the cancer
- The size
- How widely it has spread
- Your general state of health
Most nonmelanoma cancers are easily surgically removed. Other options include freezing, medicated creams, or laser therapy.
If the skin cancer is melanoma, there are some different and additional methods of treatment. Melanoma that is caught early on can be removed surgically, but if it has spread, that’s no longer an option. Your doctor might recommend some of these choices instead:
Radiation: the use of high-energy rays like x-rays that shrink or kill cancer cells
Chemotherapy: the use of medication as a pill or an injection
Biological therapy: the use of substances that affect your immune system and which are produced by living organisms (either in your own body or in a lab)
Targeted therapy: the use of medications that target the weak spots in cancer cells
Even after the skin cancer is in remission, you’re going to need to continue to pay attention to your skin and get regular check-ups.
How can I prevent skin cancer?
Some people have a higher chance of developing skin cancer than others do. This is the result of genetic and/or lifestyle factors like:
- Light skin
- Blond or red hair
- Light-colored eyes
- Lots of larger-than-average moles
- Over 50 moles of any size
- Being exposed to the sun for long periods of time, as with outdoor employment
- A history of bad sunburns that caused blisters, especially prior to the age of 20
- Using indoor tanning beds
- A weakened immune system (including after an organ transplant)
Everyone should follow certain guidelines for sun protection, but those rules are especially important if you have any of the risk factors listed above. Here are some pointers when it comes to skincare:
- Avoid being in the sun, especially between 10 am and 4 pm when the sunlight is most direct
- Remember that getting a tan is a sign that damage to your skin has already happened, so don’t tan on purpose and avoid tanning beds
- Put on broad-spectrum sunscreen, with an SPF over 15, about 15 minutes before you go out in the sun
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours when you’re outside, plus every time you swim, towel off, or sweat
- Use skin protection even on cloudy days
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat that is at least 6 inches in every direction to protect your face, ears, and neck
- Buy protective clothing that is comfortable in the heat; this may mean loose, long-sleeved shirts and long pants made of tightly-woven fabric
- Wear sunglasses that include protection for the sides of your eyes
Remember that you can be exposed to harmful rays from the sun even while you’re driving or swimming
These pointers are especially important for children since sunburns before the age of 20 leave the most lasting damage.
If you have a question about current health issues, come see us, we will help you make informed decisions about your health.
Please call us at 214-467-3832 or schedule your appointment using our online scheduler.