Each year, more than 2.2 million Americans are treated for skin cancer, making it the most common form of cancer in the United States. While 2.2 million may sound frightening, advancements in medicine mean that patients have a good chance of recovery when the skin cancer is detected and treated early. But the key is to be proactive about monitoring your skin.
Skin cancer typically develops in areas that are often exposed to direct sunlight—places like your face, neck, arms, legs, hands and ears. But skin cancer can also develop on areas not directly exposed to sunlight, including under your fingernails, toenails, torso and palms.
Although everyone has some risk for skin cancer, people with fairer complexions and who are over the age of 60 have a higher risk. Having regular physicals by your primary care doctor is the best way to track changes to your moles and skin, which is key to early detection. Your physician can also determine whether you have a higher risk based on your complexion, family history, medication use and genetic predispositions.
While many people know about melanoma, there are many different types of skin cancer, including basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Each type has different subtypes, causing different changes to your body and resulting in different warning signs.
Basal Cell Carcinoma
Your skin is made up of several layers of various cells. Basal cell carcinoma occurs in the basal cell layer, the lowest layer of the epidermis. This relatively common type of cancer is often found on the arms, neck or face. It rarely spreads to other areas, but may cause some disfigurement (to your face, for example) if not treated early. Symptoms may include:
- Small, smooth or waxy bumps, which may bleed or crust over
- Flat, brown scar-like lesions, or sores
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma occurs on the body in the outermost layer of the epidermis. It occurs more frequently in men over the age of 50 and it is thought to be the result of long-term sun exposure. The scalp is a frequent site of diagnosis. Although light complexion is a risk factor, it may also occur in people with darker skin. Tanning bed use and previous skin injury are risk factors. Symptoms may include:
- Red, firm nodule, which is a growth that forms under your skin
- Flat lesion, or sore that fails to heal
The exact cause of melanoma is unknown, but UV light exposure is a major risk factor and genetics plays a role. It develops when melanocytes (skin cells that produce pigment) multiply uncontrollably. Melanoma can develop from either an existing mole or just appear on its own. Melanoma is more likely than other skin cancers to form in areas of the skin that haven’t had much exposure to sunlight, such as on your torso. It is even sometimes discovered in internal organs. Cases of melanoma have doubled in the last 30 years and it is the most aggressive and dangerous type of skin cancer, especially when it is not discovered early. It’s important to know the ABCDEFG’s of abnormal appearing moles:
Border is irregular
Color variation within the lesion
Diameter larger than a quarter inch
The two things you can do to protect yourself from skin cancer is to cover your skin and keep an eye out for any of the above symptoms. It’s a good idea to:
- Wear protective clothing when outdoors, even in fall and winter. A wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses provide extra protection when outside.
- Do not use tanning beds.
- Wear sunscreen year-round and reapply multiple times throughout the day. Wearing SPF 30 protects against about 95 percent of the UVB rays from the sun. Reapply every few hours, but more often if you are sweating or swimming.
- Avoid the sun during the middle of the day, when UV rays are strongest.
- Preform self-examinations regularly. If you notice an unusual change in your skin or a changing mole, schedule an appointment with your primary care physician or dermatologist.
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About the author: Dr. S. George Kipa is the Deputy Chief Medical Officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan where he serves as primary backup to the Chief Medical Officer. He also serves as BCBSM Physician Ombudsman, participates in PPO network management and is an enthusiastic advocate of the BCBSM Value Partnership programs.
Photo credit: Gatanass