Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection
Skin Cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. In fact, more skin cancers are diagnosed in the US each year than all other cancers combined.
The good news is that you can do a lot to protect yourself and your family from skin cancer or catch it early so that it can be treated effectively. Most skin cancers are caused by too much exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Most of this exposure comes from man-made sources such as indoor tanning beds and sun lamps.
Skin cancer is an abnormal growth of skin cells. There are 3 main types of skin cancers:
Basal cell carcinoma, Squamous cell carcinoma, & Melanoma.
Basal and Squamous cell skin cancers are most often found in areas that get exposed to a lot of sun, such as the head, neck, and arms, but they can develop anywhere on the body. Look for new growths, spots, bumps, patches or sores that don’t heal after several weeks. Shaving cuts that don’t heal in a few days sometimes turn out to be skin cancers, which often bleed easily. (They are not caused by shaving.)
Basal Cell carcinoma:
- Flat, firm, pale or yellow areas, similar to a scar
- Raised reddish patches that might be itchy
- Small, pink or red, translucent, shiny, pearly bumps, which might have blue, brown or black areas
- Pink growths with raised edges and a lower area in the center, which might contain abnormal blood vessels
- Open sores (which may have oozing or crusted areas) that don’t heal, or that heal and then come back
Squamous cell carcinoma can appear as:
- Rough or scaly red patches, which may crust or bleed
- Raised growths or bumps, sometimes with a lower area in the center
- Open sores ( which may have oozing or crusted areas) that don’t heal, or that heal and then come back
- Wart like growths
Both of these types of skin cancers may develop as a flat area showing only slight changes from normal skin.
Actinic Keratosis, also known as solar keratosis, is a skin condition that can sometimes progress to squamous cell cancer (although most of them do not)
Actinic keratosis are caused by too much sun exposure. They are usually small (less than ¼ inch across), rough or scaly spots that may be pink-red or flesh-colored. Usually they start on the face, ears, backs of the hands, and arms, but they can occur on other sun-exposed areas of the skin. People with one actinic keratosis usually develop many more.
Some can grow into squamous cell cancers, while others may stay the same or even go away on their own. But it can be hard sometimes even for doctors to tell them apart from true skin cancers. Theses areas should be looked at by a doctor, who can help decide if they can be treated.
Possible signs and symptoms of melanoma
The most important sign of melanoma is a new spot on the skin or a spot that’s changing in size, shape or color. Another important sign is a spot that looks different from all the other spots on your skin. If you have any of these warnings signs, have your skin checked by your doctor.
The ABCDE rule is another guide to the usual signs of melanoma. Be on the lookout and tell your doctor about spots that have any of the following features.
- A is for Asymmetry: One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other
- B is for Border: The edges are irregular, ragged, notched, or blurred.
- C is for Color: The color is not the same all over and may include shades of brown or black and sometimes with patches of pink, red, white or blue.
- D is for Diameter: The spot is larger than 6 millimeters across (about ¼ inch- the size of a pencil eraser), although melanomas can sometimes be smaller than this.
- E is for Evolving: The mole is changing in size, shape, or color.
Some melanomas do not fit the rules described above, so it’s important to tell your doctor about any changes or new spots on the skin or growths that look different from the rest of your moles.
Other warning signs are:
- A sore that does not heal
- Spread of pigment from the border of a spot into surrounding skin
- Redness or new swelling beyond the border
- Change in sensation- itchiness, tenderness or pain
Most skin cancers can be found early with skin exams. Regular exams by your doctor and checking your own skin frequently can help find skin cancers early, when they are easy to treat.
Regular skin exams are especially important for people who are at a higher risk for skin cancer, such as people with reduced immunity, people who have had skin cancer before, and people with a strong family history of skin cancer. Talk to you doctor about how often you should have your skin examined.
Get your skin checked by your doctor
You doctor should check your skin carefully as a part of a routine cancer-related check-up. They should be willing to discuss any concerns you may have about the exam.
Check your own skin
It’s important to check your own skin preferably once a month. A skin self-exam is best done in a well lit room in front of a full length mirror. You can use a hand-held mirror to look at areas that are hard to see, such as the backs of your thighs. A spouse or close friend or family member may be able to help you with these exams, especially for those hard to see areas like your back or scalp.
The first time you examine your skin, spend time carefully going over the entire surface. Learn the pattern of moles, blemishes, freckles and other marks on your skin so that you’ll notice any changes next time. Be sure to show your doctor any areas that concern you.
How do I protect myself from UV rays?
People who get a lot of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays are greater risk for skin cancer.
Sunlight is the main source of UV rays, but you don’t have to avoid the sun completely. And it would be unwise to stay inside if it would keep you from being active, because physical activity is important for good health, but getting too much sun can be harmful. There are some steps you can take to limit your exposure to UV rays.
Some people think about sun protection only when they spend a day in the lake, beach or pool. But sun exposure adds up day after day, and it happens every time you are in the sun.
Simple staying in the shade is one of the best ways to limit your UV exposure. If you are going to be in the sun, “slip!slop! slap! And wrap, is a catch phrase that can help you remember some of the key steps you can take to protect yourself from UV rays:
- Slip on a shirt
- Slop on a sunscreen
- Slap on a hat
- Wrap on sunglasses to protect the eyes and skin around them
- Seek shade
For more information on skin cancer prevention and detection go to the American Academy of Dermatology website: AAD.org