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May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. With over 5 million cases of skin cancer diagnosed in the United States each year, skin cancer is found to be the most common type of cancer within the United States. Fortunately, skin cancer is also one of the most preventable forms of cancer.
Approximately 90% of nonmelanoma skin cancers and 85% of melanoma cases are associated with exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun. By raising awareness of the dangers of unprotected exposure and encouraging sun-safe habits, behaviors can be changed and lives can be saved.
With the incidence of this disease reaching epidemic levels, it's become imperative to talk about the facts of skin cancer, and how to prevent this far too common disease.
How Does Cancer Occur?
Cancer occurs when normal cells undergo a transformation and grow and multiply without normal controls. As the cells multiply, they form a mass called a tumor. Tumors are only cancerous if they are malignant. This means that the tumors encroach on and invade neighboring tissues - especially lymph nodes - because of their uncontrolled growth.
Tumors may also travel to remote organs via the bloodstream. This process of invading and spreading to other organs is called metastasis. Tumors overwhelm surrounding tissues by invading their space and by taking the nutrients they need to survive and function.
There are 3 major types of skin cancers:
The first 2 skin cancers are grouped together as non-melanoma skin cancers. Other unusual types of skin cancer include Merkel cell tumors and Dermatofibrosarcoma Protuberans.
The vast majority of skin cancers are basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas. While malignant, these are unlikely to spread to other parts of the body. They may be locally disfiguring if not treated early.
A small, but significant number of skin cancers are malignant melanomas. Malignant melanoma is a highly aggressive cancer that tends to spread to other parts of the body. These cancers may be fatal if not treated early.
Like many cancers, skin cancers begin as precancerous lesions. These precancerous lesions are changes in skin that are not cancer, but could become cancer over time. Doctors often refer to these changes as dysplasia. Some specific dysplastic changes that occur in the skin are:
Recent studies have shown that the number of skin cancer cases in the United States is growing at an alarming rate. Fortunately, increased awareness on the part of Americans and their health care providers has resulted in earlier diagnosis and improved outcomes.
Ultraviolent light exposure, most commonly from sunlight, is overwhelmingly the most frequent cause of skin cancer. Other important causes of skin cancer include:
The following individuals are at the greatest risk of skin cancer:
Basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas are more common in older people. Melanomas are one of the most common cancers in younger people, especially in those ages 25 to 29. The risk of melanoma increases with age.
Skin cancer symptoms depend on the type of skin cancer that has developed. A basal cell carcinoma usually looks like a raised, smooth, pearly bump on the sun exposed skin of the head, neck, or shoulders. Other signs include:
A squamous cell carcinoma is commonly a well defined, red, scaling, thickened bump on sun exposed skin. It may ulcerate and bleed, and left untreated, it may develop into a large mass.
The majority of malignant or cancerous melanomas are brown to black pigmented lesions. Other signs of a cancerous melanoma are:
The following is an easy to remember guideline "ABCDE", and is useful for identifying malignant melanoma.
Many people, especially those who have fair coloring or have had extensive sun exposure, periodically should check their bodies for suspicious moles and lesions. Have your primary health care doctor, or a dermatologist check any moles or spots that concern you. See your doctor if you notice any changes in the size, shape, color, or texture of pigmented areas.
If you think that a mole or other skin lesion has turned into skin cancer, your primary care doctor will most likely refer you to a dermatologist. The dermatologist will examine any moles in question, as well as the entire skin surface. Any lesions that are difficult to identify, or are thought to be skin cancer may then be checked. Tests for skin cancer include:
Surgical removal of the lesion is usually adequate for basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Malignant Melanoma, however, may require several treatment methods - depending on the size of the tumor. Treatment for malignant melanoma include: surgery, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and chemotherapy. Due to the complexity of treatment decisions, people with malignant melanoma may benefit from the combined expertise of the dermatologist, a cancer surgeon, and an oncologist.
Most skin cancer is cured surgically in the dermatologist's office. Of skin cancers that do recur, most do so within 3 years. Therefore, follow up with your dermatologist as recommended.
If you have advanced malignant melanoma, your oncologist may want to see you every few months. These visits may include total body skin exams, regional lymph node checks, and periodic x-rays and body scans.
You can reduce your risk of getting skin cancer by following these guidelines:
PLEASE CONSULT A QUALIFIED HEALTH CARE PROFESSIONAL BEFORE BEGINNING ANY MEDICATION, TAKING ANY SUPPLEMENTS, OR BEGINNING A NEW HEALTH REGIMEN.