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Skin Cancer—The Basics

This article originally published on Get Healthy Stay Healthy.

You might assume that breast or lung cancers are the most prevalent types of cancer in the US because we hear so much about them. But did you know that skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the US? In fact, each year there are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incidence of cancers of the breast, prostate, lung, and colon. And, over the past 30 years, there have been more people diagnosed with skin cancer than all other types of cancer combined. Annually, there are more than 5.4 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer diagnosed.

Skin Cancer Types—Know The Difference
There are conditions that may develop into skin cancer or be defined as very early stages of skin cancer. Actinic keratosis, also known as solar keratosis, is a pre-cancerous skin condition caused by exposure to the sun. With actinic keratosis, cells form rough, scaly, crusty growths or lesions on the skin (usually on the face, scalp, lips, and back of the hands), and occasionally go away on their own. In some cases, actinic keratosis may turn into squamous cell skin cancer if left untreated. In rare instances, actinic keratosis cells may turn into basal cell carcinoma, so make sure to see your doctor if you suspect you have this condition.

There are 3 common types of skin cancer. Here’s what you should know about them:

  • Basal Cell Carcinoma: This is the most common type of skin cancer. It most often appears on the sun-exposed areas of your body, such as your face, scalp, neck, hands, and arms, as a pearl-shaped lump, or waxy, flesh-colored bump or pimple that will not heal. While this type of skin cancer is usually not deadly, it can be extremely destructive if left undiagnosed or untreated.
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC): The second most common form of skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma can grow deep into the skin to cause damage. SCC is usually found as rough, red and scaly patches on parts of the body that are frequently exposed to the sun, such as the face, neck, scalp, arms and legs, rim of the ear, and lower lip. This type of skin cancer is the most common type found in African Americans, Asian Indians, and in transplant patients.
  • Melanoma: This type of skin cancer accounts for less than 2% of skin cancer, but causes the vast majority of skin cancer deaths. Melanoma can develop anywhere on the body; however, it often appears on the face or the trunk on men, and on the legs for women. For 2015, the American Cancer Society estimates that about 73,870 new melanomas will be diagnosed (about 42,670 in men and 31,200 in women) and about 9,940 people are expected to die of melanoma (about 6,640 men and 3,300 women).

Early detection is important because it increases the chance for survival. The warning signs for melanoma are usually found in changes to an existing mole or in an abnormal looking mole and are as easy to remember as ABCDE:

A—Asymmetry: Does the mole have an irregular shape with 2 parts that look different?
B—Border: Is the border irregular or jagged?
C—Color: Is the color uneven?
D—Diameter: Is the mole larger than a pea?
E—Evolving: Has the mole changed during the past few weeks or months?

High-Risk Profile—What’s Your Risk?
People with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop skin cancer. Risk factors vary for different types of skin cancer, but some general risk factors are having:

  • Fair skin or skin that becomes irritated easily by the sun
  • Family or personal history of skin cancer
  • History of sunburns and indoor tanning
  • Blue or green eyes
  • Blond or red hair
  • A large number of moles, or certain types of moles
  • Recipient of an organ transplant

Treatment—Most Skin Cancer is Curable if Caught Early
In order for a doctor to diagnose skin cancer, a biopsy needs to be performed. Your general doctor or skin specialist (dermatologist) may take a look at your mole or skin using special magnifying tools. If something abnormal is found, a sample of your skin is usually taken for further testing.

There are many treatments for skin cancer depending on its type. Some options for treatment include:

  • Surgery: Different types of surgeries can be performed depending on the type of cancer and the severity including simple excision, shave excision, electrodesiccation and curettage, laser surgery, and dermabrasion
  • Cryosurgery: Cancer cells are destroyed by freezing off the affected area
  • Radiation therapy: Uses x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing
  • Chemotherapy: Drugs stop the growth of cancer cells by killing them or stopping them from dividing
  • Photodynamic therapy: Uses a drug and a certain type of laser light to destroy cancer cells
  • Biologic or Immuno therapy: Uses substances made by the body or made in a laboratory to boost, direct or restore the body’s natural defenses against cancer

Most skin cancers are curable, especially if found and treated early. Even melanoma has a high cure rate if treated early. However—like other cancers—skin cancer can come back, so it’s important to continue seeing a dermatologist for checkups.

What You Can Do About It (All Year Round)
Getting some fun in the sun is healthy in both warm weather and cold. Your body does need natural sunlight all year round to make Vitamin D, and being outdoors and active is good for your health. But it’s always important to take precautions with your skin. Here are some ways to help you protect yourself from getting skin cancer:

  • Do not get burned. Getting five or more sunburns can double your risk of getting melanoma. This means tanning is never safe.
  • Stay safe by applying sunscreen. Use an at least SPF of 15 or higher. Cover exposed areas of your skin with clothing, sunglasses, and hats. Find shade when the sun’s rays are the strongest, and avoid tanning both at the beach and at indoor tanning booths.
  • See your doctor every year for a skin exam. Stay on top of your skin health by getting yearly skin exams. Your yearly physical is a great time for you to discuss with your doctor any skin changes that you may have noticed and to get a professional’s advice on what to do next.

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1. American Cancer Society. Cancer facts & figures 2015. Accessed: December 4, 2015.
2. Skin Cancer Foundation. Skin cancer facts. Accessed: December 4, 2015.
3. Skin Cancer Foundation. Actinic keratosis (AK). Accessed: December 4, 2015.
4. American Academy of Dermatology. Skin cancer: Signs and symptoms. Accessed: December 4, 2015.
5. Skin Cancer Foundation. Melanomas aren’t the only dangerous skin cancers. Accessed: December 4, 2015.
6. Skin Cancer Foundation. Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Accessed: December 4, 2015.
7. American Cancer Society. What are the key statistics about melanoma skin cancer? Accessed: December 4, 2015.
8. Skin Cancer Foundation. Types of melanoma. Accessed: December 4, 2015.
9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What are the symptoms of skin cancer? Accessed: December 4, 2015.
10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What are the risk factors for skin cancer? Accessed: December 4, 2015.
11. American Academy of Dermatology. Skin cancer: Treatable and beatable with early detection. Accessed: December 4, 2015.
12. National Cancer Institute. Skin cancer treatment (PDQ®): General information about skin cancer. Accessed: December 4, 2015.
13. National Cancer Institute. Skin cancer treatment (PDQ®): Treatment option overview. Accessed: December 4, 2015.
14. Skin Cancer Foundation. Preventing skin cancer. Accessed: December 4, 2015.

Did you know that skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the US?