Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, but luckily, it’s also one of the easiest to treat.
What Causes Skin Cancer?
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.
Melanoma vs. Nonmelanoma
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.
What are the Symptoms of Skin Cancer?
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.
- The mole is an irregular shape. If you could fold the mole in half, its two sides wouldn’t match.
- The edges of the mole are unclear and poorly-defined. It blends into the surrounding skin and/or appear to be jagged.
- The mole has changed in color. This could mean darkening, losing color, spreading color, or developing multiple colors.
- A mole larger than a pencil eraser is unusual.
- The mole looks different from other ones on your skin, or it has changed in shape, size, or color.
Skin cancer could also look like:
- A mole that bleeds or itches
- A mole that grows quickly
- A skin growth that is scaly or crusty
- A sore that won’t heal up
- A patch of skin that has changed color
How to Examine Yourself for Skin Cancer
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!
How Skin Cancer is Treated
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:
- What type of skin cancer you have
- The location of the cancer
- The size
- How wide it’s spread
- Your overall state of health
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:
- Radiation (high-energy rays like x-rays that shrink or kill the cancer cells)
- Chemotherapy (medication in a pill or injection)
- Biological therapy (substances that affect your immune system, that are produced by living organisms, in your own body or in a lab)
- Targeted therapy (medications that target the weak spots in cancerous cells)
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.
How Can I Prevent Skin Cancer?
Some people are more prone to skin cancer than others, due to genetic or lifestyle factors like:
- Having light skin, blond or red hair, and/or light-colored eyes
- Having skin that burns but doesn’t tan
- Having lots of larger-than-average moles or more than 50 moles of any size
- Being exposed to the sun for long periods of time, like doing outdoor work
- Having a history of bad sunburns that caused blisters, especially before the age of 20
- Using indoor tanning beds
- Having a weakened immune system (including after an organ transplant)
- Having a family history of cancerous moles or melanoma
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:
- Avoid being in the sun, especially at the times with the most direct sunlight (between 10 am and 4 pm)
- Remember that getting a tan at all is a sign that damage to your skin has already happened
- Put on broad-spectrum sunscreen, with an SPF over 15, about 15 minutes before going out in the sun
- Use skin protection even on cloudy days
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours that you’re outside, plus every time you swim, towel off, or sweat
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat (that’s at least 6 inches in every direction) to protect your face, ears, and neck
- Buy protective clothing that is comfortable in the heat, like loose long-sleeved shirts and long pants made of tightly-woven fabric
- Wear sunglasses that include protection for the sides of your eyes
- Remember that you can be exposed to harmful sunlight even while driving or swimming
- Don’t tan on purpose
- Avoid tanning beds
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!