1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70. In the United States and worldwide, it’s the most common type of cancer, with approximately 9,500 people diagnosed every day.
With early diagnosis and treatment, most forms of skin cancer are completely treatable. During Skin Cancer Awareness Month this May, take the time to learn how to identify skin cancer signs and unusual moles or growths that may be cancerous.
1. What Is Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer is an abnormal growth of skin cells. When you are exposed to harmful radiation from the sun or a tanning bed, the radiation damages DNA in your skin cells. This damage causes cells to mutate and form malignant tumors.
There are 3 primary types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are cancerous growths that develop in the skin’s superficial top layer — the epidermis. While these cancers cause local damage, they rarely spread to other areas of the body. With early identification, they are highly treatable and removable.
Melanoma is less common, but more dangerous. It matures in melanocytes, which are skin cells in the epidermis that produce melanin. Melanin is the pigment responsible for giving skin its color. Melanomas can develop on their own or develop from existing moles that become cancerous. If left untreated, it can grow and spread quickly to other areas of the body.
2. Where Does Skin Cancer Occur?
Most skin cancers develop on areas of the body that are frequently exposed to the sun, like the scalp, face, ears, lips, neck, chest, arms and legs. However, cancerous lesions can form on any area of the body, including the palms and soles of hands and feet, under fingernails or toenails and in the genital area.
Among people with darker complexions, carcinomas and melanoma are more likely to develop on areas of the body less frequently exposed to sunlight.
3. Who Gets Skin Cancer?
Anyone can develop skin cancer. High-risk groups of people include:
- People with fair skin or light-colored hair and eyes.
- People who freckle or sunburn easily.
- People with a personal history or family history of skin cancer.
- People with weakened immune systems. A diagnosis of AIDS or HIV places you at higher risk.
- People who have numerous or abnormal moles. Abnormal moles are more likely to become cancerous.
- People who spend a lot of time in the sun or live in sunny climates. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun is responsible for most cases of cancerous skin growths.
- People who use tanning beds. Tanning beds and lamps expose your skin to unsafe radiation that can cause cancer.
- People who have a history of sunburns. Having just 5 severe or blistering sunburns in early life doubles your risk of developing melanoma.
4. How Do I Identify Cancerous Lesions or Growths?
During skin checks, take note of any new, unusual, painful or bleeding moles, nodules, lesions, sores or growths. If an abnormal skin growth doesn’t heal after 2 weeks, then seek medical care for a skin examination.
Below, learn the identifying signs for the 3 primary types of skin cancer, as well as the most common type of precancerous lesions:
- Precancerous lesions (actinic keratosis). Precancerous lesions are abnormal growths that have a higher chance of becoming skin cancer. They commonly develop on areas of skin with frequent sun exposure and they may come and go over time. They typically present as clusters of small, rough, scaly patches of skin. Lesions range in color and can be white, tan, brown, pink or red. They may burn, itch or feel tender when exposed to direct sunlight.
- Basal cell carcinomas. Basal cell carcinomas are highly treatable with early identification. They commonly develop on areas of skin with high sun exposure. They may present as pearly white or red bumps with an abnormally colored center, flat lesions that look like scars, pink growths with visible blood vessels or open sores that don’t heal. Sometimes, basal cell carcinomas heal and return. Lesions may be itchy, painful or bleed easily.
- Squamous cell carcinomas. Like basal cell carcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas are highly treatable once they are discovered and diagnosed. They commonly develop on areas of skin with high sun exposure. They may present as rough and scaly red patches of skin, raised growths or open sores that don’t heal. Sometimes, squamous cell carcinomas heal and return. Lesions may be itchy, crusty or painful, and they may bleed or ooze easily.
- Melanoma is the most dangerous and aggressive form of skin cancer. Left untreated, it can spread quickly and become fatal. One sign of melanoma is a mole or skin growth that doesn’t look like the surrounding moles — this is the “ugly duckling” rule. To detect melanomas, follow the ABCDE rule and look for growths that are:
- Asymmetrical in size
- Borders are irregular or jagged
- Color is not the same all over, and includes areas of blue, brown, black or red
- Diameter is larger than the size of a pencil eraser (6 mm)
- Evolving in size, shape or color
5. What Should I Do If I Notice an Unusual Growth?
If you have a new, unusual or non-healing sore or growth, contact your dermatologist as soon as possible. Early identification and diagnosis of cancerous lesions increases the likelihood that treatment will be successful. To make a diagnosis, your dermatologist will perform a skin examination, and he or she may take a skin biopsy for testing.
Superficial carcinomas can usually be completely removed with a biopsy. For large carcinomas or melanomas, further testing may be needed to determine how far the cancer has progressed.
Depending on the size, location and severity of the growth, several treatment options are available to remove cancerous cells:
- Excisional surgery
- Mohs micrographic surgery
- Radiation therapy
- Photodynamic therapy
For small, superficial growths and actinic keratoses, your dermatologist may apply topical medications, perform curettage and electrodessication or use liquid nitrogen to freeze and destroy the cancerous cells.
6. How Can I Protect My Skin From Cancer?
Always, always, always wear sunscreen when you spend time in direct sunlight. Try to avoid being outside during the hottest times of day: between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. EST. If you are outside, wear long-sleeved clothes, wide-brimmed hats and wraparound sunglasses to protect your skin from exposure. Don’t tan or visit tanning beds — a tan is a sign that your skin has already been damaged.
Perform a self-check on yourself at least once a month for skin cancer signs, make note of new or unusual changes and see your dermatologist annually for a full skin examination. If you have any questions about skin cancer or if you have a suspicious growth or mole, contact Florida Dermatology and Skin Cancer Centers today to make an appointment for a check-up.