The sun has emerged from hibernation after a long winter – but before you run off for a summer of beach trips, bike rides, and barbeques, take a moment to familiarize yourself with the signs of skin cancer in honor of Skin Cancer Awareness month this May. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, but because it usually develops on visible areas of your body there is a better chance of diagnosing and treating it early, before it worsens. Of course, skin cancer can also occur in places not exposed to the sun – such as between the toes, on the palms of the hands, and in the groin area. As a general rule of thumb, take note of any unusual nodule, mole, sore, or rash that may be oozing or bleeding and does not heal. Keep reading for a more detailed explanation of identifying different forms of skin cancer, predisposing factors, and prevention methods.
Identifying basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas
Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the two most common forms of skin cancer, as well as the least dangerous if identified and treated early. These carcinomas are slow-growing and rarely spread to other parts of the body. Early growths are characterized by:
- Pale patches of skin or pearly, translucent bumps with a center indentation or visible blood vessels;
- Firm red lumps;
- Scaly, itchy red lumps or patches; and/or
- Brownish scars or flesh-colored lesions.
Melanoma is a less common type of skin cancer, but once developed it grows and spreads more easily and can turn deadly without treatment. Unlike basal and squamous cell carcinomas, which affect the top layers of skin, melanoma tumors mature in the pigment-producing melanocytes under the skin.
- When it comes to melanoma, know your ABCs….and D and E, as well: Look for moles or growths that 1.) Are Asymmetrical in shape, 2.) Have an uneven Border, 3.) Vary in Color (i.e., moles that are blue, red, or white), 4.) Have a large Diameter, and/or 5.) Evolve over time.
- Learn to identify the “Ugly Duckling” mole: Compare all the skin growths, moles, or lesions in one area – is there one that stands out? The outlier could be a small, red bump in the presence of several large, brown moles, or a large, uneven lesion next to many small, round growths.
While anyone can develop skin cancer, there are certain predisposing factors that place you at higher risk, including:
- Fair skin, blue eyes, and blond hair. Light skin tones have less pigmentation, which offers less protection against harmful ultraviolet radiation. Take extra precautions outside if you freckle or sunburn easily.
- History of sunburns. You are at higher risk for developing skin cancer if you experienced a blistering sunburn as a child, or if you get frequent sunburns as an adult.
- Excessive sun exposure. Your chances increase if you spend a lot of time outdoors in direct sunlight or if you live in a sunny climate.
- Use of tanning beds. Tanning beds or lamps expose your skin to extreme radiation and have been linked to higher rates of melanoma growth.
- Presence of multiple moles. If you have numerous moles, abnormal moles, or precancerous lesions, make sure you are checking yourself regularly for signs of changes. Precancerous lesions – called actinic keratoses – present as red, scaly patches on the skin and could progress into skin cancer if not treated early.
- A family or personal history of skin cancer.
- A weakened immune system – such as from a diagnosis of HIV or AIDS.
While many forms of skin cancer are treatable if diagnosed in the early stages, your best defenses are to protect yourself before you need treatment at all. Avoid being outside in direct sunlight while the sun is at its peak strength – between 10 am and 4 pm (North America). When you are outside, wear protective clothing and sunscreen, even if there is cloud coverage. Use wide-brimmed hats, long-sleeved shirts, and sunglasses to shelter visible skin. And don’t forget to lather up – read here to learn about the best sunscreen ingredients.
Get your skin checked regularly. Examine yourself for any changes at least once a month and schedule routine appointments to see your dermatologist for a full check-up. If you have any questions about skin cancer, believe you may be at high risk, or think you have a suspicious growth or mole, call your dermatologist and make an appointment today.