Skin Cancer Information & Prevention

How to Recognize & Prevent Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is an abnormal skin growth created by DNA mutations in the cells of the epidermis, the top layer of skin. It is the most common type of cancer in humans. The leading contributor to skin cancer is ultraviolet (UV) radiation. People with histories of sun-exposure or tanning-bed use are thus more susceptible to skin cancer. Skin cancer also occurs disproportionately in people who have had it before or have weakened immune systems. In most cases, skin cancer is curable as long as the doctor can intervene before the malignant cells spread. Early detection of skin cancer is thus critical to a person's full recovery.

There are several types of skin cancer. The most common are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.

Types of Skin Cancer

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is a malignant lesion that originates on the outermost layer of skin, the basal layer. The most prevalent type of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma is responsible for 80 percent of diagnoses. Since basal cell carcinoma tends not to metastasize and spread on the body, nine of ten cases are curable. The earlier a doctor can detect basal cell carcinoma, the higher the likelihood of a full recovery for the patient.

There are several warning signs associated with basal cell carcinoma. If any of these traits appear, an examination by a dermatologist should follow.

  • Open sores on the body that bleed, ooze fluid, or become crusty.
  • Pink or red patches of irritated skin that crust over in the center.
  • Shiny areas of the skin that resemble moles or scars.

Basal cell carcinoma most often occurs in the areas of the body that receive frequent exposure to sunlight, a prime source of UV radiation. About 85 percent of all BCC cases affect the patient's face and neck. Incidence rates for the cancer tend to be highest in adults over age 50.

A dermatologist diagnosis basal cell carcinoma after a biopsy of the area where the warning sign appears. The biopsy takes only a few minutes. If tumor cells are present in the biopsy, the dermatologist will initiate additional treatments.

There are multiple treatment options for basal cell carcinoma. The doctor may surgically remove the tumor cells. Radiation therapy is an option to treat older patients with sensitive skin. Dermatologists also rely on radiation to eliminate BCC growths on areas of the face where surgery would be challenging. Oral and topical medications are treatments in more limited cases of BCC.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) affects the squamous cells that make up the middle and outer dermis layers. Most instances of squamous cell carcinoma are not life-threatening. But there is a possibility that this type of cancer will grow larger and spread on the body. Early detection of squamous cell carcinoma is vital for its cure and to avoid serious complications.

Causes of squamous cell carcinoma include overexposure to UV radiation. The areas of the body most often afflicted by the cancer are the back of the hands, shoulders, and neck. The physical appearance of squamous cell carcinoma can have similar traits to basal cell carcinoma (BCC).

  • The body may have an open sore that leaks fluid or bleeds but does not heal.
  • A red, scaly patch may appear on the skin and grow slowly but steadily.
  • Bumps may develop on the skin and crust over or bleed.

People who tend to develop squamous cell carcinoma include adults of middle age who spend lots of time outdoors. The incidence rate of SCC also seems to be twice as high in males than females.

Dermatologists have several treatments for squamous cell carcinoma. Surgery is the most common way to remove the cancerous growths from the skin. The surgical dissection of the lymph nodes may also be necessary when the lymph nodes are cancerous. Radiation and topical chemotherapy are possible treatments for more extensive areas affected by SCC.

In severe cases, squamous cell carcinoma can spread to other organs of the body and affect the person's long-term health. Chemotherapy is one treatment options in such cases.

Melanoma forms due to the mutation of melanocytes, pigment-producing cells that become cancerous. Melanoma is a relatively rare type of skin cancer, but the health risks of this cancer are high because of its propensity to spread in the body. Like other skin cancers, melanoma incidence rates correspond with exposure to UV radiation in sunlight. Melanoma continues to appear more frequently in younger people under age 40 and particularly in women.

There are five stages of melanoma.

  • Stage 0: The cancer is in the outermost dermis layer.
  • Stage 1: The cancer has grown up to 2mm thick and may be ulcerated.
  • Stage 2: The size of the cancerous growth has as much as doubled in size.
  • Stage 3: The cancer has begun spreading to lymph nodes.
  • Stage 4: The reach of the cancer now includes distant lymph nodes or other body organs.

The most common treatment for melanoma is surgery, where a dermatologist can eliminate the malignant tissue. Margins of healthy tissue around the lesion may also be removed to lower the chances of the cancer returning. A biopsy may happen during the surgery to check for clear margins; this technique is standard in MOHS surgery.

What to Look For

Observing all changes in the appearance and texture of the skin is critical to the detection of skin cancer. Warning signs to look for include the following.

  • Brown spots with dark speckles that appear on any part of the body.
  • Lesions of a dark color that form on the hands, feet, or face.
  • Round skin growths that are translucent or pearlescent.
  • Moles on the body that increase in size and start to itch and bleed.
  • Streaky brown or black lines that form under the fingernails.
  • A long-lasting body sore that bleeds or oozes and does not heal.
  • Pink or red lesions that are scaly and form in clusters.

The "ABCDE" guide created by The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) is a helpful guide to determine the signs of a cancerous mole.

  • Asymmetry: One half of a mole is a different shape from the other half.
  • Border: There are notched or blurred edges on the mole.
  • Color: The color is uneven with different shades.
  • Diameter: The mole has a large size.
  • Evolving: The color, size, and shape of the mole change.

A mole that displays any of the ABCDE characteristics merits an examination by a dermatologist.

Prevention

Many instances of skin cancer are attributable to overexposure to the UV radiation in sunlight. Dermatologists recommend taking steps to limit the risk factors.

  • Avoid direct sunlight between the late morning and early evening.
  • Wear clothes that cover the skin when outdoors.
  • Keep the sun off the face by wearing hats and sunglasses.
  • Apply sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Use “broad spectrum” sunscreens that protect against all UV rays, including UVA and UVB.
  • Check the skin every month for warning signs of skin cancer. Notify a dermatologist of any changes in the skin.
  • Schedule routine visits to the dermatologist. Adults over age 40 should have annual exams at a minimum.

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