Did you know that skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in America- and that the deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma, kills an average of one person an hour? If you’re not already actively screening your skin for skin cancer on a regular basis, or trying to protect your skin from sun damage- now is the perfect time to start. Here are some tips for what to look for when checking your skin for signs of skin cancer- and what you should be doing every single day to prevent it.
This year, 3.5 million Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer, and 160,000 of those cancers will be melanoma. Melanoma is thought to be caused by unprotected sun exposure, but despite better screening methods and greater awareness, numbers are increasing. Scientists believe this is due to increasing deterioration of the earth’s ozone layer, which is allowing higher levels of radiation from the sun’s dangerous UV rays to reach our skin. In fact, researchers now estimate that 1 in 50 Americans will be diagnosed with melanoma in their lifetime. So, what should you be looking for when checking your skin for melanoma and other forms of skin cancer- and what can you do to help protect yourself from the sun’s dangerous rays?
Melanoma: The deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma isn’t just an older person’s problem. It’s not only the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women aged 25-30, but it is also becoming increasingly common in children. About 500 children a year are diagnosed with Melanoma- and that number is increasing at a rate of 2% a year! Melanoma can appear anywhere on the body- even the eyeballs (ocular melanoma), fingernails and scalp- and can affect anyone of any race, age or gender. When checking your skin for Melanoma, the best way to remember what to look for is to use the ABCDE Method.
- Asymmetry: is your mole symmetrical? An asymmetrical mole does not always mean cancer, but it is one of the signs to look for, especially if the mole meets some of the other warning criteria.
- Border: In addition to not being symmetrical, cancerous moles do not have round, defined borders- instead they usually appear as a jagged- edged cluster.
- Color: Most benign moles are uniform in color, though there are some that do vary slightly. Melanomas are rarely uniform in color and can appear brown, black, and even red, white, or blue in spots.
- Diameter: Moles with melanoma are usually larger than healthy moles. They may start out small but grow over time. They are usually larger than the size of a pencil eraser.
- Evolving: Cancerous moles will evolve over time. In fact, all of the factors in the ABCD method can change, which is why it is important to check your moles frequently, and conduct full-body melanoma screenings on a monthly basis. If you have a mole that begins crusting over, bleeding or itching, contact your doctor immediately.
Basal Cell Carcinoma: Basal cell carcinomas (BCC) are the most common form of skin cancer. Thankfully, if caught early, they are usually not fatal. BCC’s are also thought to be caused by sun exposure. They appear on the skin as open sores, red patches, scars, shiny bumps, or pink growths. Thankfully BCC does not usually spread- but they can if left untreated. They can also cause permanent scarring when removed and can return to previously treated areas- so regular follow-up care is extremely important. BCC is caused by prolonged sun exposure AND by short-term, intense sun exposure that may result in a sunburn. People most at risk for BCC are those with fair skin, red or blonde hair, and light colored eyes. Though it has traditionally been more common in men, an increasing number of women are developing BCC.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma: About 1 million new cases of squamous cell carcinoma or SCC are diagnosed each year. Of those, around 8800 will be fatal – a number that has increased by a shocking 200% since the 1980’s. SCC is caused by prolonged (usually over a lifetime) sun exposure or from frequent use of tanning beds. SCC affect the top layers of skin known as the epidermis – and appear on areas of the body that get the most sunlight- like the nose, lips, ears, neck, hands, arms, legs and on balding scalps. SCC appear on the skin as sores, scaly red patches, warts, elevated growths with indented centers, and may also crust or bleed.
In addition to these three main forms of skin cancer, three non-melanin related cancers are not caused by sun exposure. They are:
- Kaposi’s Sarcoma: Kaposi’s sarcoma is a form of skin cancer that develops from the cells that line blood vessels and lymph nodes. It is caused by a virus, and frequently affects patients who are already suffering from HIV. Kaposi’s sarcoma often appears as lesions on the skin, organs, lymph nodes and even inside the mouth, throat, and inside the nose, in the form of dark purple, red, or brown skin blotches or tumors.
- Merkel Cell Carcinoma: Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) most frequently affects older people. It can appear on the head, face or neck- usually in the form of a bluish-red nodule. Patients with MCC may have one or several of these nodules. Though MCC can be caused by prolonged sun exposure, it can also be caused by a weakened immune system. MCC begin on the skin but can spread throughout the body, including lymph nodes, bones, liver, lungs, and even your brain. If left untreated, MCC can be fatal, so early detection and treatment are crucial.
- Cutaneous Lymphoma: Cutaneous lymphoma is a form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It is a cancer of the lymphocytes. Cutaneous lymphoma will appear on the body as red, scaly patches, and may be confused with chronic dermatitis or eczema. Though it appears on the skin, cutaneous lymphoma can spread to internal organs. Most cutaneous lymphomas are not fatal. However, they are only considered treatable- not curable. While we do not know what causes cutaneous lymphoma, it is believed to be from DNA changes that occur as we age.
Now that you know what to look for when it comes to skin cancer, here’s how to prevent it:
- Sunscreen. Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen. We recommend Oclipse C Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF50, every single day. The rule is, the higher the SPF, the better. The number on your SPF relates to the protection level of the product, so if you are using an SPF 50 like Oclipse, you would have 50 times more protection than you would if you skipped the sunscreen entirely- and it will take you 50 times longer to burn. So if you normally burn after 10 minutes of exposure, it will take you around 500 minutes to burn with SPF 50. When choosing a sunscreen, remember to aim for a broad spectrum sunscreen, as that will protect your skin from both UVA and UVB rays, and reapply it as directed. The sun will break down the sunscreen over time, and sweating or getting wet will rinse away sunscreen- even in water resistant or waterproof formulas.
- Protective Gear. When going out in the sun, wear protective clothing to reduce your skin’s exposure to the sun. Wear wide-brimmed hats that cover your nose, ears, and mouth. Protect your eyes with sunglasses that protect your eyes from a minimum of 99% of UVA/UVB rays. Aim for a minimum of UV400. Wear long sleeves as often as possible, and try to stay indoors during the sun’s peak hours. Check your daily local UV index and avoid going outdoors on days when the index is above a 6 out of 10.
- Regular self-exams. Whether you have moles you are concerned about or your skin looks healthy, give your entire body a complete once-over at least once a month, looking out for new moles or changes that do not go away. You should also schedule an annual skin screening with your physician. This can be done during your annual physical.
Remember, if you have any spots that are of concern, don’t wait to have them checked out – early detection could be the difference between life and death. Once you’re cancer free, there are many surgical options for correcting scars caused by removing cancer- that’s the easy part. But you need to get yourself healthy FIRST. Dr. Mitchell and his staff are always available to answer any questions you may have regarding scars and corrections. Call our office at (702) 430-1198.