National Skin Cancer Awareness Month

Don't Let Skin Cancer Sneak Up on You

dermatologist performing skin cancer exam
Susan Chiang/E+/Getty Images

Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, with over one million people diagnosed each year. Even though it is so common, you may not know how it can affect your life and what you can do to reduce your risks. May is National Skin Cancer/Melanoma Awareness Month, with campaigns to inform you about the causes, risks, and treatment of skin cancer in its various forms.

What should everyone know about skin cancer?

Overview

Let's begin by looking at some of the major statistics which describe skin cancer in the United States.

  • Skin cancer and melanoma account for about 50 percent of all cancers diagnosed.
  • Skin cancer is one of the more preventable types of cancer.
  • More than 90 percent of skin cancer is caused by excessive exposure to the sun.
  • Each hour, one person dies from skin cancer. It is not something to be dismissed as a health risk.

Given the final statistics here, skin cancer can't be dismissed as being a minor risk. People can, and do, die from the disease. And for those who are survivors, treatment can be painful and disfiguring.

Types

Skin cancer is divided into two categories: melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers.

  • Melanoma: Melanoma is a dangerous form of skin cancer and is often referred to as the "bad skin cancer." Melanoma accounts for only around one percent of skin cancers but is the leading cause of deaths related to the disease. It's estimated that 87,110 people will be diagnosed with melanoma in 2017, and 9,730 will die.
  • Non-melanoma skin cancer: Skin cancers other than melanoma cancer be serious but are often much less life-threatening and easier to treat. There are two common types of non-melanoma skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

Causes

Unprotected exposure to the sun's UV rays is the culprit of most cases of skin cancer, though there are other causes as well. Genetics can play a role in skin cancer development, and it's currently thought that over half of people diagnosed with melanoma have some genetic predisposition.

  • Having fair skin, especially those who freckle or burn easily
  • Having many or abnormal moles
  • Having a personal or family history of skin cancer
  • The use of tanning salons
  • Having had radiation therapy for cancer

Of note, is that despite the increased use of sunscreen over the last 3 decades, the incidence of melanoma is increasing. We are learning that the UVA rays can be just as damaging as UVB rays, and only some sunscreens include coverage for UVA rays. Noting the increase in skin cancer despite sunscreen, it's important to look at what people did before sunscreen became widely available. They often avoided the sun's rays between 10 am and 2 pm. They wore hats and used umbrellas to protect themselves. They also dressed wisely, using clothing to protect their skin when needed.

Symptoms

  • A small lump (spot or mole) that is shiny, waxy, pale in color, and smooth in texture.
  • A red lump (spot or mole) that is firm
  • A sore or spot that bleeds or become crusty. Also look for sores that don't heal.
  • Rough and scaly patches on the skin.
  • Flat scaly areas of the skin that are red or brown.
  • Any new growth that is suspicious

Signs and symptoms of melanoma

Diagnosis

If you suspect that a lump, spot, or mole may be suspicious of skin cancer, see your doctor. When detected early, it is highly treatable.

Sometimes skin lesions that are cancerous can appear very similar to those which are benign, at least to lay people (or even general practitioners). If you are interested in seeing examples of these the different skin cancer types, here are some photos to help:

Treatments

The treatment of skin cancer will depend on the type of cancer as well as its size and location. Surgical treatment.

Historically, advanced melanomas carried a very poor prognosis. But with the advent of newer treatments, such as immunotherapy drugs, people are surviving longer than in the past, sometimes with even the most advanced stages of the disease.

Prevention

When choosing a sunscreen, make sure to find a sunscreen which has adequate UVA protection.

Early Detection

We can't always prevent skin cancer from occurring, but finding it in the earliest of stages can make a difference both in the cosmetic result from surgery and the risk that it could metastasize and lead to death.

Skin cancer can sneak up on you if you aren't looking out for it, and it may not be something you think about for regular checkups. It pays to pay attention to your skin.

  • Monthly Self Exam: It is recommended that each person examine their skin monthly for skin abnormalities. Learning the ABCs of skin cancer can help you to identify areas of the skin that may be cancerous.
  • Yearly Clinical Skin Exam: It is also recommended that people have a clinical skin exam every year by a healthcare professional.
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