Skin cancer is a significant threat that does not discriminate based on age, gender or ethnicity. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF), each year there are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incidence of cancers of the breast, prostate, lung and colon.
The incidence rates of skin cancer is alarming, but the good news is that skin cancer is highly curable if detected early and treated properly. Adults concerned about the threat posed by skin cancer can take a proactive approach by learning about the three main types of this often preventable disease.
While there are certainly people who are more prone to skin cancer, anyone who spends time in the sun should be careful to avoid a too much exposure. Exposure to the sun can increase a person's risk for various forms of skin cancer, including melanoma. The SCF notes that blistering sunburns suffered in early childhood especially increase a person's risk of developing melanoma, though sunburns later in life also can increase that risk. In addition, people who live in places that get substantial sunlight, such as North Carolina, tend to develop more skin cancers than people who live in areas with less sunlight. Tanning booths and beds also increase exposure to ultraviolet rays, which increase one's melanoma risk.
The more moles a person has also plays a role. The more moles, the greater his or her risk for melanoma. Moles are classes as being normal or atypical. Normal moles are small, brown blemishes or beauty marks that appear in the first few decades of life. Atypical moles known as "dysplastic nevi" can be precursors to melanoma, and people with such moles are at greater risk of developing the disease. It can be difficult to distinguish between normal and atypical moles, though the SCF notes that atypical moles that itch, bleed, crust, ooze, swell, or are elevated from the skin might be in particular danger of becoming melanomas. Atypical moles that are bluish-black in color or become persisting open sores are also at greater risk of becoming melanomas.
Of course people with fair skin need also take extra precaution as they are more susceptible to sunburn. Likewise, people whose immune systems have been compromised are at greater risk of developing melanoma than those whose immune systems are working at full strength.
Roughly 10 percent of people diagnosed with melanoma have a family member who also has been diagnosed. People whose mother, father, siblings or children have developed melanoma are considered to be in families that are prone to melanoma. In fact, each person with a first-degree relative who has been diagnosed with melanoma has a 50 percent greater chance of developing the disease than someone with no such family connection.
Types of Skin Cancer
Melanoma, carcinoma, the language alone is a little overwhelming. Here's a breakdown of the most common types of skin cancer.
Basal cell carcinoma – The American Cancer Society notes that roughly eight out of 10 skin cancers are basal cell carcinomas. Basal cells are in the lower part of the epidermis, or skin, which is known as the basal cell layer. Basal cell carcinomas typically develop on the head and neck or other areas of the body that are exposed to the sun. Though they rarely metastasize, basal cell carcinomas can spread to other areas of the body if left untreated. The SCF notes that basal cell carcinomas may look like open sores, red patches, pink growths, shiny bumps or scars. Basal cell carcinomas can be a byproduct of cumulative exposure to the sun or even intense, occasional sun exposure.
Squamous cell carcinoma – Squamous cell carcinomas most commonly appear on areas of the body that are exposed to the sun, though the SCF notes they also may occur on the mucous membranes and genitals. According to the SCF, in the United States alone, more than one million people each year are diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, which is mainly caused by cumulative sun exposure over the course of a lifetime. Year-round exposure to ultraviolet light and UV rays from the sun, as well as UV exposure from tanning beds, can take a toll on the skin's squamous cells over time, ultimately leading to squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinomas may look like scaly red patches, open sores, warts, or elevated growths with a central depression. In addition, squamous cell carcinomas may crust or bleed.
Melanoma – Though they are far less common than basal and squamous cell cancers, melanomas are more likely to grow and metastasize if left untreated. Melanomas develop when unrepaired DNA damage to skin triggers mutations that cause the skin cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumors. Ultraviolet radiation from sunshine or tanning beds is most often the cause of the damage connected to melanomas. Melanomas typically resemble moles, and some may even develop from moles. Melanomas are often black or brown, but the SCF notes that they also may be pink, red, purple, blue, white or even skin-colored. Early detection of melanoma before it spreads to other parts of the body is essential, as the SCF notes that melanoma is hard to treat and potentially fatal once it has begun to spread.
What to Look For
Skin cancer is one of the most pervasive types of cancer, and just about everyone is at risk of getting it. The American Cancer Society says that, over the past 30 years, more people have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined. Melanoma, while not the most common form of skin cancer, is the deadliest form of the disease. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, if melanoma is recognized and treated early, it is almost always curable. One way to detect melanoma early is to be aware of moles and new growths on the skin.
Brown spots, growths and moles on the body are often harmless, but they may be indicative of skin cancer. Experts say that anyone who has more than 100 moles is at greater risk for melanoma than others. Knowing one's skin and being aware of any changes is key to detecting skin cancer much more promptly.
The Ugly Duckling sign was introduced in 1998 and relates to the observation that nevi, or moles, on the body tend to look like one another – much like all the ducklings in a flock will resemble one another. However, a mole that is unlike the other, or an "ugly duckling," may indicate the presence of skin cancer. Nevi may present in different patterns, which are deemed normal to a particular person. An outlier, or a mole that doesn't fit the pattern, could raise a red flag. The outlier may be darker than surrounding moles or it may be smaller or more jagged around the edges.
The Ugly Duckling sign is often used with another diagnostic tool called ABCDE, an acronym for the detection steps: Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter, and Evolving.
- Asymmetry: If an imaginary line is drawn through the middle of the mole and the two halves of the mole do not match up, this could be a warning sign. Normal spots tend to be symmetrical.
- Border: The borders of early melanoma tend to be jagged or notched, while regular moles have even borders.
- Color: A mole with multiple colors might be melanoma.
- Diameter: Melanomas tend to be larger than the diameter of a pencil eraser. Large spots should be investigated.
- Evolving: If a mole starts to change all of a sudden by growing or changing color, or even if it
Since its inception in 1979, The Skin Cancer Foundation has always recommended using a sunscreen with an SPF 15 or higher as one important part of a complete sun protection regimen. Sunscreen alone is not enough, however. Other suggestions include:
- Seek the shade, especially between peak sun – 10am-4pm
- Do not burn.
- Avoid tanning and UV tanning beds.
- Cover up with clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.
- Use a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day. For extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
- Apply 1 ounce of sunscreen to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours or immediately after swimming or excessive sweating.
- Keep newborns out of the sun. Sunscreens should be used on babies over the age of six months.
- Examine your skin head-to-toe every month.
- See your physician every year for a professional skin exam.
More information about skin cancer and how to prevent it is available at www.skincancer.org.