Skin Cancer From the Sun
May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, so we find it fitting to discuss the relationship between sun exposure and skin cancer. Skin cancer is the world’s most common cancer, with more than 4 million people diagnosed annually in the United States. Skin cancer is not something we are unable to prevent. In fact, there are many lifestyle habits you can adopt to lower your own chances of getting skin cancer. Sun damage is cumulative, so the more sun-safe behaviors you adopt, the better your chances of avoiding skin cancer from the sun.
Did you know that skin cancer is one of the most treatable forms of cancer when detected early? You should do a full self-exam monthly in places like your scalp and ears, looking for any increase in size, change in color/texture or new growths on a mole, birthmark or any pigmentation. In addition, you should schedule an annual appointment with a dermatologist or skin specialist to do a more comprehensive exam. If she spots anything peculiar, she can schedule a biopsy to test the skin cells. You shouldn’t have to risk missing any spots, because the spots you miss can very likely be the places where skin cancer can develop outside your awareness.
Here, we’ll discuss four types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, actinic keratosis (precancer), melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma.
Basal Cell Carcinoma
The most common form of skin cancer from the sun is basal cell carcinoma (BCC). This type is not at risk of metastasizing (spreading beyond the original site) and is fairly easy to remove. BCCs appear as open, non-healing sores, reddish patches, shiny bumps, pink growths and scar-like, waxy areas. Sometimes, they resemble conditions like eczema or psoriasis. They are the most frequently occurring form of all cancers, occurring due to both long-term lifestyle exposure and occasional, intense exposure. It’s important to treat them sooner than later due to the possibility for disfigurement and occasional nerve or muscle injury. Plus, some rare forms are lethal. The possibility for recurrence is high, so routine check-ups and treatments following a BCC diagnosis are imperative.
Actinic Keratoses (AKs) are not themselves considered skin cancer, but they are the most common type of skin precancer. These are crusty, scaly growths that are elevated and rough in texture like sandpaper. AKs occur due to UV exposure and come more than one at a time. These lesions are often concentrated under the skin, and they can create an itching sensation. They are often red but may be light or dark tan, pink, flesh-toned or white. In addition to tanning machines and natural exposure to the sun, X-rays may even trigger their formation. AKs often develop into squamous cell carcinoma. More than 58 million Americans have actinic keratosis. Although only 10% of AKs turn into cancers, the majority of SCCs begin as AKs.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is skin cancer that grows in the squamous cells of the epidermis or top layer of skin. An SCC can appear as a scaly, red patch, elevated growth with central depression, open sore and wart-like growth. SCCs can be deadly and disfiguring. Causes include intense summer sun exposure, daily exposure and tanning beds. As with BCCs and AKs, areas frequently exposed to the sun such as ears, lower lips, face, neck, hands, arms and legs are most vulnerable. The larger SCCs get, the more likely they can penetrate the underlying tissues, sometimes leading to the loss of a nose, eye or ear. Some small percentage of cases can spread to other organs and mucosal regions such as the mouth, nostrils, genitals, anus and internal organ linings.
The most dangerous form of skin cancer, melanoma results in around 10,000 deaths per year in the US. Melanoma is skin cancer originating in the melanocytes or pigment-producing cells in the basal layer of the epidermis. Melanomas appear as moles or even develop from them, often presenting as black or brown spots. They can occur in a variety of colors including pink, red, purple, blue, white and skin-colored. They occur when UV damage permanently alters skin cells, triggering mutations that lead to rapid multiplication of skin cells and tumor formation. Some people may be more genetically predisposed than others, and people with more than 100 moles are at greater risk. It is not the most common but it is the most fatal form of skin cancer. With early diagnosis and treatment, it is usually curable. When it comes to detecting melanomas, look for asymmetry, uneven borders, variety of colors, larger diameter or evolving appearance compared to benign moles. Most melanomas (70 to 80%) arise on skin that’s not existing moles.
Sun-Safe Habits to Prevent Skin Cancer From the Sun
If you are interested in preventing yourself from becoming a regular skin cancer patient, you should practice sun safety habits to lower your risk. Here are some tips you should implement on a daily basis:
- Do not burn
- Seek shade between 10 AM and 4 PM
- Never use tanning beds or tan
- Use a broad-brimmed hat & UV-blocking sunglasses
- Wear UVA/UVB (broad spectrum) sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher daily
- Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours and after swimming or sweating
- Keep newborn babies out of sun, then begin with sunscreen at six months
- Perform your self-exam every month
- Go to a dermatologist once or twice a year for a skin exam
Are you ready to take action against skin cancer from the sun this month? Share your tips with the Laser Café!