One morning while getting ready for work, Peter, 48, noticed a mole he hadn’t recalled seeing before. Taking a closer look in the mirror, Peter asked himself a question that many of us might ask when we discover a change in our skin: could this be cancer?
Nearly five million people are treated for skin cancer each year in the United States. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, the most common forms of skin cancer, are curable when caught early. Melanoma, the third most common type of skin cancer, is more serious and can be fatal.
Skin cancer of all three types is most often caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, found in direct sunlight as well as some types of indoor lighting, such as a tanning bed. In addition to the cancer risk, too much exposure to UV rays can cause sunburn, skin damage, and premature aging of the skin.
WHO GETS SKIN CANCER?
One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. Skin cancer can strike anyone of any age or skin color, but certain conditions may put you at a greater risk of developing skin cancer. Males, redheads, people with light colored or freckled skin, and those with a family history of skin cancer are more likely to develop skin cancer during their lifetime.
Fully 90 percent of all skin cancers stem from exposure to ultraviolet radiation. If you have had more than one bad sunburn in your lifetime, or if you regularly expose your skin to the sun’s rays, whether at the beach or at a tanning salon, you run a greater risk of developing some form of skin cancer.
It’s important to note that not every suspicious looking mole or mark is cancerous, and early detection is key. Talk to your doctor if you notice any changes in your skin, such as a new growth, a sore that doesn’t heal, or a mole that bleeds. If you have a family history of skin cancer or other risk factors, it’s wise to visit the doctor annually for a full-body screening. In between visits, make a regular habit of checking your own skin for early signs of skin cancer.
SKIN CANCER SELF-SCREENING
Stand or sit unclothed in front of a wall mirror and use a hand mirror to see the back of your body. If you discover a new spot or mole, examine it under a strong light using the ABCDE formula below. See your doctor if your skin shows one or more of these characteristics.
- Asymmetrical. One side of the mark doesn’t match the other side, whether in color, darkness, or shape.
- Border. Look for irregular edges that are blurred, ragged, or notched.
- Color. The color is not the same all over the spot, and may include different shades of brown or black, or even patches of pink, red, blue, or white.
- Diameter. Determine if the spot is larger than a quarter inch across—about the diameter of a pencil eraser.
- Evolving. The mark has changed in size, shape, or color since the last time you checked.
While melanoma can appear anywhere on the body, basal cell and squamous cell cancer cells, or carcinomas, usually appear the face, scalp, neck, or any other body part that gets a lot of sun. Check your skin regularly for the following signs:
- Flat, pale or yellowish areas that look like a scar
- Small, translucent, shiny bumps (usually pink or red, sometimes with darker areas)
- Pink growths with raised edges that looks like the spokes in a wheel
- Any open sore that doesn’t heal or heals and then comes back.
- Raised, rough or scaly red patches that itch, bleed, ooze or become crusty
AWARENESS AND PRECAUTION
The most effective precaution against skin damage is to protect your skin every time you are exposed to the sun. Using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher can reduce your risk of getting skin cancer and protects against other skin damage, such as wrinkles and age spots.
Avoid being in the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when UV rays are strongest. Sit in the shade or wear clothing that covers sensitive areas or contains an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). Protect your eyes and face by wearing sunglasses and a hat with a brim.
One last tip: There’s no such thing as a “healthy tan.” Skin cells that have been damaged by UV rays produce more pigment, so tanning is your skin’s response to injury. Every tan or sunburn increases your risk of getting skin cancer.
“Can Basal and Squamous Cell Skin Cancers Be Found Early?” The American Cancer Society. Last medical review: July 26, 2019. Last revised: July 26, 2019. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/basal-and-squamous-cell-skin-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/detection.html
Horn, Kaitlin. “It’s Officially Summer: Skin Cancer Prevention Tips.” National Foundation for Cancer Research.June 21, 2018. https://www.nfcr.org/blog/the-first-day-of-summer-skin-cancer-prevention-tips/
“How to Do a Skin Self-Exam.” The American Cancer Society. Last medical review: July 23, 2019. Last revised: July 23, 2019. https://www.cancer.org/healthy/be-safe-in-sun/skin-exams.html
“Signs and Symptoms of Basal and squamous Cell Skin Cancer.” The American Cancer Society. Last medical review: July 26, 2019 Last revised: July 26, 2019. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/basal-and-squamous-cell-skin-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/signs-and-symptoms.html
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Simon, Stacy. “How to Spot Skin Cancer.” April 9, 2020. https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/how-to-spot-skin-cancer.html
“Skin Cancer Screening Exams.” MD Anderson Cancer Center. https://www.mdanderson.org/prevention-screening/get-screened/skin-cancer-screening.html
“What Are the Risk Factors for Skin Cancer?” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last reviewed: April 9, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/basic_info/risk_factors.htm
“What Is Skin Cancer?” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last reviewed: April 9, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/basic_info/what-is-skin-cancer.htm