Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the world. In fact, over 2 million cases of skin cancer were diagnosed in the United States alone this year. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their lives. If caught early, skin cancer can be easily cured. However, people who have had skin cancer are at a higher risk of developing a new skin cancer, which is why regular self-examination and doctor visits are imperative.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF SKIN CANCER?
- Basal cell carcinoma – Accounts for 75% of all skin cancers. They usually appear as a small pink or pearly bumps on the skin. They predominantly develop in areas exposed to the most sun such as the face, head, neck, hands, arms and shoulders. They are most commonly found in people with light-colored eyes, hair and complexion. They are slow growing and are rarely life-threatening.
- Squamous cell carcinoma – Accounts for about 20% of all skin cancers. They also develop most commonly on the sun-exposed areas and present as scaly patches of skin or as pink crusted nodules. This form of skin cancer is more aggressive than basal cells. It can spread to other ares of the body, but if caught early, is easily cured.
- Melanoma – Accounts for approximately 5% of all skin cancers but is responsible for 73% of all deaths from skin cancer. Melanomas originate in melanocytes or the pigment producing cells in the skin. They often resemble a mole or can begin as a mole that turns cancerous which then spreads quickly throughout the body. They most commonly develop on the back, face, legs and arms but can develop anywhere on the body including the soles of the feet, nail beds, vagina or even in your eye. Risk factors for melanoma include: a family history of melanoma, early childhood sunburns, many freckles, > 50 moles, history of dysplastic or atypical moles, tanning bed use.
HOW CAN I TELL IF I HAVE SKIN CANCER?
It is important to examine your skin on a regular basis. You should see a dermatologist right away for a skin cancer check if you see anything on your skin that lasts for 2 weeks or longer and is growing, changing shape, or bleeding or itching.
It can be difficult to distinguish between a mole and a melanoma. When examining your skin, you should look for the ABCDEs of melanoma. (borrowed from AAD website)
ABCDE’s of melanoma
A = ASYMMETRY
One half is unlike the other half.
B = BORDER
An irregular, scalloped or poorly defined border.
C = COLOR
Is varied from one area to another; has shades of tan, brown or black, or is sometimes white, red, or blue.
D = DIAMETER
Melanomas are usually greater than 6mm (the size of a pencil eraser) when diagnosed, but they can be smaller.
E = EVOLVING
A mole or skin lesion that looks different from the rest or is changing in size, shape or color.
HOW IS SKIN CANCER DIAGNOSED?
The best way to find out if you have a skin cancer is to get a skin cancer screening. At that appointment, our doctors perform a thorough head to toe examination of the skin. At Natural Image we are skilled with the use of a device called a dermoscope which shines light on and magnifies the skin. This technology allows us to more closely examine a mole or growth to see if it needs to be biopsied. Many times it eliminates the need for the mole to be tested. However, if a suspicious lesion is identified, a biopsy may be performed. This is generally a quick, safe and easy procedure with minimal risk or discomfort.
HOW IS SKIN CANCER TREATED?
There are many treatments for skin cancer and multiple factors are taken into account when developing the treatment plan including: the type of skin cancer, the location of the skin cancer, the stage of the skin cancer as well as the age and health of the patient. The options include surgical removal of skin cancers including simple excisions, curettage and electrodessication (which involves scraping out the cancerous cells and cauterizing the base) and Mohs surgery. Mohs surgery may be recommended if the skin cancer is in a sensitive area or is a more aggressive skin cancer. It is a specialized surgical technique for removing skin cancers with the highest cure rate and can often help to minimize surgical scars. It is performed as an outpatient under local anesthesia. The Mohs surgeon will examine the cancerous tissue as it is excised to ensure complete removal. Other treatments for skin cancer may involve topical chemotherapy, cryotherapy, photodynamic therapy, radiation, or even creams that stimulate your own immune system to fight the cancerous cells.
WHAT IS A PRECANCEROUS SKIN LESION?
In our office, we see 2 common precancerous skin lesions – Actinic Keratoses and Dysplastic Nevi.
- Actinic Keratoses – An actinic or solar keratosis is a common precancerous skin condition caused by excessive exposure to ultraviolet light. They are characterized by rough, dry, tan-to-pink-colored blemishes that most often appear on parts of the body with the most sun exposure such as the face, scalp, ears, and hands. They are most common in fair-skinned, middle-aged or elderly individuals, who may have a single or numerous lesions. Actinic keratoses can lead to a more serious squamous cell carcinoma if left untreated. It is estimated that 20-40% of SCCs begin as actinic keratosis. There are multiple treatments available for actinic keratoses including cryosurgery, curettage (scraping), photodynamic therapy, or topical chemotherapy and creams that stimulate your own immune system to fight the cancerous cells. The choice of treatment depends on the location of the lesion, how many there are, and the preference of the patient.
- Dysplastic Nevi – Although most moles are benign, about 30% of the population has moles called dysplastic nevi, or atypical nevi which tend to be larger than ordinary moles (most are 5 mm across or larger), have irregular borders, and are various shades or colors. Individuals who have dysplastic nevi plus a family history of melanoma (a syndrome known as FAMM) are at a high risk for developing melanoma at an early age (younger than 40). It is important that these patients especially come at least once yearly for a full skin cancer screening.
HOW CAN SKIN CANCER BE PREVENTED?
These are skin cancer prevention tips recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology and the Skin Cancer Foundation:
- Avoid prolonged sun exposure between the hours of 10 AM and 4 PM
- Wear sun protective clothing including a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.
- Use a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day. For extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 and above. Apply 1 oz or 2 tablespoons of sunscreen to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside and reapply every 2 hours or immediately after swimming or excessive sweating.
- Avoid tanning and UV tanning booths.
- Do not burn.
- Perform a self-exam every month.
- Get a once yearly skin cancer screening by a dermatologist.