While there are genetic risk factors, skin cancer mainly comes from lifestyle choices that cause too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. Most of the UV light that touches our skin is from the sun, but it can also be found in the light from tanning booths and sun lamps. Despite what scientists originally believed, both types of UV light (longer-wave UVA and shorter-wave UVB) can cause cancer.
The tanning response is actually your skin’s attempt to protect itself from UV rays. Even if you avoid a sunburn, you’re exposing yourself to skin cancer-causing factors every time you tan—and that includes inside a tanning booth.
For these reasons, skin cancer usually occurs on the parts of the body that are in the most direct sunlight: your head, neck, face, tips of the ears, hands, forearms, shoulders, back, chest, and lower legs. While these are the “hot spots” for skin cancer, it’s still important to be vigilant for skin cancer everywhere on the body.
The two types of skin cancer are called melanoma and nonmelanoma.
Melanoma’s name comes from the fact that it happens in the skin cells that make the pigment called melanin. Melanoma is only 2% of cases of skin cancer, but it leads to more deaths than nonmelanoma. This is because it’s aggressive, and if it’s not found early, it can easily spread to other cells and organs.
Nonmelanoma skin cancer, a much more common type, is a lot easier to treat because it grows slowly and doesn’t spread. Nonmelanoma has two subtypes: basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, which get their names from the level of the skin in which they grow.
Skin cancer can show up in a huge variety of ways, but the basic sign is a change in your skin, like a bump, growth, lesion, mole, or rough patch.
A regular, harmless mole can come in shades of flesh colors from light to dark, and it has clear and well-defined edges. Usually, it’s oval-shaped or round, and flat or dome-like. In size, it’s smaller than a quarter of an inch across.
When self-checking for skin cancer, there’s a handy acronym to help you remember what to look for in moles: ABCDE.
Skin cancer could also look like:
To detect possible cases of skin cancer early on, it’s important to do a skin check at regular intervals. It’s easy, and all you need is a full-length mirror and a handheld one.
Over time, it’s key to learn where your birthmarks, moles, and blemishes are and what they usually look like. This way, you can note any changes. Start paying attention to your skin—all of it.
When you do a check, look closely at your skin. Look at the front and the back of your body, your sides, your palms and forearms, your upper arms, the back and front of your legs, between your buttocks and around your genitals, the bottoms of your feet, between your toes, your face, your neck, and your scalp. If your hair is long and/or thick, use a comb or a blow dryer to separate the hair so you can see the scalp unimpeded.
If you find anything that causes you to worry, it’s time to make a doctor’s appointment. Remember that early detection is the best way to treat skin cancer!
The first step, when your doctor suspects you might have skin cancer, is to do a biopsy. All this means is that your doctor will remove a small piece of skin to send to a lab for testing.
If you end up being diagnosed with skin cancer, you will probably have to undergo some more tests to see whether the cancer cells have spread to other parts of your body. Tests you might expect include a CT scan, an MRI, or a lymph node biopsy.
The progression of treatment after testing depends on:
Most nonmelanoma cancers are simply surgically removed. Some doctors will instead recommend freezing, medicated creams, or laser therapy.
On the other hand, if the skin cancer is melanoma, there are some different and additional treatment challenges. Melanoma that is caught early on in its progression can be removed surgically, but if it has spread around the body to other organs, that’s no longer an option. Your doctor might recommend some of these options:
Even after the cancer is successfully treated, you’re going to need to continue to pay close attention to your skin and get regular check-ups—just in case.
Some people are more prone to skin cancer than others, due to genetic or lifestyle factors like:
Everyone should follow basic skincare guidelines, but it’s especially important if you have any of the above risk factors. To avoid damaging your skin with UV rays, here are some pointers:
These pointers are especially important for children, since sunburns before the age of 20 cause the most permanent damage to the skin.
To learn more about Skin Cancer, please visit https://www.skincancer.org for more information.
If you think you might have skin cancer, it’s important to make an appointment with your doctor just in case. Don’t wait!