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What You Need to Know about Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is diagnosed more frequently than any other type of cancer in the United States. Every year, several million Americans will learn that they have it. There are several different kinds of skin cancer, and some can become more dangerous than others. The good news is that all of these forms of cancer are highly curable when they are detected in their early stages. By becoming educated about skin cancer and performing self-exams, however, individuals can decrease their own risk of developing the disease and experiencing its potentially devastating effects.

Types of Skin Cancer

The most common types of skin cancer are squamous cell carcinoma, malignant melanoma, and basal cell carcinoma. Basal cell carcinoma is the one of the three that is most frequently diagnosed; in fact, three out of every ten Caucasian Americans will develop it during their lifetimes. It begins deep in the epidermis (the skin's uppermost layer) and can appear in the form of waxy bumps, open sores, or pink or red lesions on the ears or face. Basal cell carcinoma rarely spreads to other organs or causes death, but its ability to disfigure the skin and destroy nearby tissues still earns it the classification of "malignant." Squamous cell carcinoma develops in the cells that are located at a higher level of the epidermis. It manifests itself in the form of red patches or open sores that may bleed or become crusty. Squamous cell carcinoma can appear almost anywhere on the skin, but it is most common on the face, ears, neck, arms, and legs. If it is not detected early and treated promptly, it can spread and, in some instances, prove fatal. Approximately 2,500 Americans die from this type of skin cancer every year. Malignant melanoma develops in the bottom layer of the epidermis, where the melanin pigment originates. Like squamous cell carcinoma, it is curable when it is discovered in its early stages, but can spread and become dangerous if this does not happen. Melanoma accounts for almost 9,000 skin cancer-related deaths every year. It mainly affects people of Northwestern European descent and usually appears in the form of dark moles. Melanoma most frequently occurs on the head, neck, trunk, arms, or legs; however, it can also occur on other areas of the skin. In the rare event that an individual with a darker skin tone develops melanoma, this form of cancer may appear on the sole of one foot or underneath a fingernail.

ABCD's of Skin Cancer

Unexplained sores and persistent, inflamed skin lesions are often a telltale sign of basal or squamous cell carcinoma, but melanoma can be a bit more difficult for the average person to detect. This is because it starts out as what may appear to be a normal freckle or mole. Many people have freckles and moles that are completely harmless, so it can be easy to miss the warning signs of early melanoma. While it is not necessary to obsess over every dark-colored mark that is present on one's skin, it is important to become familiar with the general appearance of one's existing freckles and moles and notice when new ones develop. Dermatologists recommend following the "ABCD" method when examining growths and spots on the skin. This acronym stands for "asymmetry, borders, color, and diameter." First, individuals should determine whether any of the freckles or moles look asymmetrical. The two halves of a spot or growth should match each other in size and shape; if this is not the case, there may be a problem. The next step is to look at the borders of one's skin spots and growths to make sure that there are no irregularities. The borders should be easy to define, not blurred or jagged. Finally, one should study the color and diameter of a freckle or mole. If a mark on the skin is even in color and no wider than a pencil eraser, it is probably benign. Marks that feature multiple colors (for example, ones that are both brown and black) or are large in size might be a cause for concern. Freckles and moles that display one or more of the ABCD irregularities are not always cancerous, but they definitely deserve attention from a dermatologist.

Causes

Skin cancer is usually a result of excessive exposure to ultraviolet ("UV") radiation. The sun is the main source of UV rays, so lying outside to tan or simply spending a great deal of time outdoors increases one's risk of developing cancer. It is important to remember that indoor tanning lamps and beds also emit UV rays and elevate the risk of skin cancer. Although skin cancer most frequently develops in areas of the body that see a lot of sunlight, this is not always the case. Since skin cancer sometimes appears on parts of the skin that are not normally exposed to the sun, there are other factors that can contribute to its development. These include immune disorders and exposure to certain toxic elements.

Prevention

The simplest way to minimize the risk of getting skin cancer is to limit one's exposure to direct sunlight and avoid using tanning beds. While it is important to put on sunscreen before heading outdoors, it is also a good idea to wear sunglasses, a brimmed hat, and long sleeves whenever possible. UV rays tend to be stronger between 10 am and 4 pm, so it is ideal to stay indoors or in the shade during this time frame. It is also important to note that one can actually be exposed to UV radiation on an overcast day. This is especially true at the beach, where the harmful rays tend to reflect off the water.

By Katie Phillips