More Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other cancers combined. One in five will develop some type of skin cancer by the age of 70. The good news is that when detected early, most skin cancers are highly treatable and curable.
There are three main types of skin cancer - basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and melanoma. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, each day an additional 9,500 people are diagnosed with one of these cancers.
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common. It represents about 80% of all skin cancers. Fortunately, it tends to grow slowly. It also isn’t likely to spread to other parts of the body. If left untreated, it has the potential to get into the bone or tissue below the skin.
Melanomas and squamous cell carcinomas are the most dangerous. SCC is often found in areas of the body that are regularly exposed to sunlight and melanomas can occur anywhere. If left to grow, both cancers can spread to the lymph nodes.
“Early detection and treatment can prevent that from happening. When cancer spreads to your lymph nodes or it enters you lymphatic system it can metastasize or travel to other organs and other areas of your body. Once this happens, treatment is more complex and the cancer can be deadly,” said Dr. Richard Usatine, a dermatology expert for the skin clinic at University Health.
There are many signs and symptoms of basal and squamous cell skin cancers. They can be flat, raised, open sores, wart-like or bumps with numerous colorful characteristics.
Only one percent of all skin cancers are melanoma. The AIM at Melanoma Foundation projects some 96,480 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed by the end of this year, resulting in more than 7,200 deaths. When a melanoma patient is diagnosed early, there’s a five-year survival rate of 99%.
Look for unusual growths or changes within a mole
“When you see something on your skin that doesn’t look or feel right, take action and get it looked at right away,” said Dr. Usatine.
“Not all skin cancers look unsightly or have dark areas with multiple colors. And in reverse, a patient could have a seborrheic keratosis (normal age spot) that forms into a brown or black wart-like spot, but those are harmless,” he explained.
That’s why it’s important to be examined by a healthcare provider who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of skin disorders. This is particularly important if you have a history of skin cancer or risk factors to get skin cancer.
Because cancer of the skin morphs into so many shapes and textures, the American Cancer Society recommends the ABCDE rule to help people recognize the major features of melanoma. Remember, not all melanomas have these exact characteristics.
- Asymmetry, half of a mole does not look the same as the other half
- Border, the edges of the growth are irregular, ragged or blurred
- Color, the area in question is not consistent and it may include various shades of brown or black, or it could include patches of pink, red, white or blue
- Diameter, most melanomas are larger than a pencil eraser (6mm)
- Evolving, a mole or growth will change in size, shape or color
You can get skin cancer at any age
The American Academy of Dermatology indicates the numbers have increased over the past 30 years. Caucasian men over 50 have the highest risk of getting melanoma. It’s also the second most common form of cancer in women age 15 to 29.
“The majority of skin damage is caused by exposure to the sun. I encourage my patients to use safety measures to avoid too much sun exposure,” Dr. Usatine said.
Additional factors that increase your risk of getting melanoma:
- Having had skin cancer in the past
- Having many irregular or large moles
- Having light skin and hair, red hair, blue or green eyes
- A parent, brother, sister or child has had melanoma
- Multiple, early childhood sunburns
Dr. Usatine recommends the following to lower your risk
- Minimize expose to UV rays – use sun avoidance, seek shade, wear hats and use sun protective clothing
- Daily, apply a water-resistant sunscreen on sun exposed areas
- Don’t use tanning beds or sunlamps
- See a skin specialist once a year for a thorough exam if you have risk factors for skin cancer
- Regularly review all surfaces of your skin, note any changes
- Don’t delay, see your doctor immediately if you see something suspicious
We know early detection saves lives. If an area of your skin looks odd, is changing, growing or bleeding, has unusual pain or isn’t healing properly, see a skin expert or dermatologist as soon as possible.