Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Although cancerous skin lesions can develop anywhere, they frequently appear on skin that has been exposed to the sun. There are more than a million new cases of skin cancer in the United States each year. Although most cases of skin cancer can be successfully treated, it is still important to keep skin safe, healthy and cancer-free.
There are three major types of skin cancer that affect associated layers of the skin.
- Squamous cell carcinoma affects the squamous cells, which are just below the outer surface of the skin and serve as the inner lining.
- Basal cell carcinoma affects the basal cells, which lie under the squamous cells and produce new skin cells.
- Melanoma affects the melanocytes, which produce melanin; it is the most serious form of skin cancer.
Causes of Skin Cancer
Every day, skin cells die and new ones form to replace them in a process controlled by DNA. Skin cancer can form when this process does not work properly because of damage to DNA. New cells may form when they are not needed or older cells may not die. This can cause a growth of tissue known as a tumor. DNA damage is often a result of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight or tanning lamps. Because skin cancer can sometimes affect areas not exposed to the sun, heredity may also be a factor.
Whether it is 89 degrees or 34 degrees, sun protection should be the first thing on people’s minds when they venture outside. Ultraviolet radiation from sun exposure, and from exposure to sun beds and lamps, is a known carcinogen (a substance known to cause cancer). Therefore, it is vital to protect skin from ultraviolet radiation. The skin is an organ that protects the body from external factors, such as bacteria, and helps maintain homeostasis. It is composed of three layers: the epidermis, the outermost layer; the dermis, the middle layer; and the hypodermis, the innermost layer. Melanin cells found in the epidermis are an important chemical pigment defense against UV rays that may damage skin cells.
Cells are the tiny individual structures that make up all parts of the body. Normal growth and repair of tissue takes place in an orderly fashion through cell division. When cell division is not orderly and controlled, abnormal growth occurs. Masses of tissue develop and may become cancerous.
Different skin types are affected differently by UV radiation. Although lighter skin is more prone to sun damage, darker skinned people such as African Americans and Hispanics are also susceptible to sun damage.
Certain factors, including fair skin, moles, a weakened immune system and age, can also increase the risk of skin cancer.
Signs and Symptoms of Skin Cancer
Skin cancer can often be identified as a new or changed growth on the skin. It often appears on the scalp, face, lips, ears, neck, chest, arms, hands or legs. The appearance of the growth depends on the type of cancer, but can appear as a:
- Pearly or waxy bump
- Flesh-colored or brown scar-like lesion
- Firm, red nodule
- Crusted, flat lesion
- Large brown spot with darker speckles
- Mole that changes shape or color
- Shiny, firm bump
Diagnosis for Skin Cancer
Please make an appointment with Dr. Walden if you notice any skin changes. Early detection is invaluable in successfully treating skin cancer. Regular full-body screening is also recommended. A biopsy is performed to properly diagnose suspected cancerous growths.
Treatment for Skin Cancer
Treatment for skin cancer depends on the type, size and location of the tumor. Most options remove the entire growth, and are usually effective. Removal procedures are usually simple and require only a local anesthetic in an outpatient setting. Some of the treatment options for skin cancer include:
- Freezing – Also known as cryosurgery, this kills tissue by freezing it with liquid nitrogen.
- Excision – Abnormal tissue, as well as some surrounding healthy tissue, is cut out of the skin.
- Laser therapy – This destroys cancerous growths with little damage to surrounding tissue and few side effects.
- Mohs surgery – This removes larger skin growths layer by layer, which prevents damage to healthy skin, until no abnormal cells remain.
- Chemotherapy – Drugs are used to kill the cancer; they may be applied through creams or lotions for top-layer tumors.
Other treatment options are available, including new methods that are being studied.
Although most treatment for skin cancer is successful, new tumors can still form. It is important to practice preventive measures and have regular checkups. You can also perform self skin-checks to spot any changes as soon as they occur.
Having fun under the sun can be done safely. Here are some helpful tips to protect you against skin cancer:
- Seek shade between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Avoid tanning and UV tanning booths.
- Apply sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher 30 minutes before going outside.
- See your physician every year for a skin checkup.
- Wear clothing that covers exposed areas.
- Check your skin and learn the pattern of moles, blemishes and other marks so that you’ll notice any changes.
The American Cancer Society recommends performing a monthly self-exam using the following steps:
- Check your face, ears, neck, chest and belly. Women will need to lift breasts to check the skin underneath.
- Check the underarm areas, both sides of your arms, the tops and bottoms of your hands, your fingernail beds and in-between your fingers.
- Sit down, and check the front of your thighs and shins, tops of your feet, toenail beds and in-between your toes.
- You will need a hand mirror for your thighs, back and scalp.
- Look at the bottoms of your feet, your calves and the backs of your thighs, first checking one leg and then the other.
- Use the hand mirror to check the buttocks, genital area, lower back, upper back and the back of the neck.
- Use a comb or hair dryer to part your hair so that you can check your scalp.