Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is a potentially deadly, but preventable cancer that affects approximately one million people in the United States. Cancer is a serious illness that necessitates early detection and treatment. The key to detecting cancer is being aware of the various signs. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, and accounts for over half of all cancer cases in this country. However, different forms of cancer have different symptoms. Some common cancers are not as easy to detect. The symptoms are vague and closely resemble those of less serious conditions. Skin cancer often goes undetected because it appears in the form of a mold or freckle.

What is Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer is cancer that develops in the outer layers of the skin. Our bodies ordinarily produce healthy skin cells. Occasionally, these skin cells produce additional cells. The reproduction of healthy cells is necessary to repair damaged skin. For example, a sunburn or cut heals once new skin cells have formed. On rare occasions, skin cells divide abnormally. This abnormal growth results in cancerous cells that form on the skin’s surface. In most cases, skin cancer is not life threatening. This occurs when the cancer does not progress or spread to other parts of the body. There are three types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.

Three Types of Skin Cancer

Basal cell carcinoma: A non-melanoma skin cancer that develops on the outer surface of the skin. Basal cell carcinoma is generally non-life threatening because it does not progress further than the skin’s surface. This is most common form of skin cancer, affecting 80% of all skin cancer patients.

Squamous cell carcinoma: A non-melanoma skin cancer that develops on the outer surface of the skin. Additionally, squamous cell carcinoma is non-life threatening.

Melanoma: The most serious form of skin cancer. Unlike the other forms of skin cancer, melanoma develops in the melanocytes, which are the cells that produce skin color. This type of cancer is rare; however, it results in over 7,000 deaths a year in the United States. Melanoma progresses rapidly. Thus, early detection is the key. Unfortunately, several cases of melanoma are not diagnosed until it reaches an advanced stage.

Causes of Skin Cancer

In almost every incident, skin cancer is caused by too much exposure to the sun. Individuals who spend a lot of time sunbathing or enjoying the rays at the beach are at great risk for developing one of the three forms of skin cancer. Exposure to ultraviolet lights from tanning lamps also places a person at great risk for skin cancer. One blistering sunburn during our lifetime may increase the odds of developing skin cancer by 50%.

Risk Factors

Skin cancer may affect anyone. In fact, 1 in 7 people will develop a form of skin cancer. However the chance of developing this form of cancer is greater for the following individuals:

Light skinned people (More common in Caucasians; Hispanics and African-Americans have a moderate risk because of the skin containing higher color pigments that protect the skin from sun damage.)

Childhood sunburn

Family history of skin cancer

Over the age of 40

Blue eyes, blond or red hair

Employed outdoors

Multiple moles

Northern European heritage

Symptoms of Skin Cancer

Individuals with a higher risk of developing skin cancer should get into the habit of regularly examining their bodies. Skin cancer begins as growths on the skin, usually moles. Some people have several moles on their body. In most cases, these will not be cancerous. Still, it is important to be aware of new moles or changes in moles. These are usually indicators of skin cancer. Skin cancer mostly affects areas that are exposed to the sun such as the neck, back, shoulders, and head. However, it is not uncommon for skin cancer to develop in areas not exposed to the sun. Symptoms of skin cancer include:

Change in the color of a mole

Change in the size of a mole

Bump that bleeds

Red patches of skin

Bumps with an indented center

Open sore that does not heal

Shiny appearance on skin

Growth of new mole or wart

Mole with uneven sides

Moles that include different colors (blue, white, red, brown)

Diagnosing Skin Cancer

Annual screening for skin cancer is the most effective way of detecting the cancer early. During these examinations, physicians will thoroughly exam the body for unusual skin growth. Suspicious moles will be easily detected by a physician. The examining doctor will either order more tests to determine whether cancer is present, or choose to monitor a growth. Ordinary moles may slowly become cancerous. If doctors are concerned about a skin growth, the patient will have to undergo a skin biopsy. This is a procedure where tissue samples are removed from the skin growth. The sample is examined by a pathologist, who will be able to determine whether the skin growth is cancerous.

Treatment Options for Skin Cancer

The most common treatment option for skin cancer is surgery. Non-melanoma skin growths are generally removed. Because these growths are limited to the skin’s surface, additional treatments such as chemotherapy (drug intended to kill cancerous cells), and radiation therapy (high energy rays intended to shrink tumors and kill cancerous cells) are not necessary. If melanoma is the culprit, victims will have to undergo tests such as an ultrasound to determine whether the cancer has spread to other tissues and organs. Melanoma skin growth will be removed surgically; however, chemotherapy and radiation may become necessary to kill remaining cancerous cells.

Preventing Skin Cancer

Fortunately, skin cancer is preventable. Most cases of skin cancer are the result of overexposure to the sun. Protecting ourselves from the sun’s dangerous ultraviolet rays will dramatically decrease our chances of developing non-melanoma and melanoma cancer. Here are a few tips to guard against the sun.

Avoid the sun during peak hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.)

Wear protective clothing

Wear UV protective sunglasses

Use sunscreen

Enjoy the outdoors in the shade

Avoid tanning bed and sunbathing for long periods

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