Freckles, moles, and birthmarks are common, and almost all people have some of these features in varying degrees. Changes in the shape, color, size, or the outer edges can be warning signs of skin cancer.
It is estimated that 1 in 5 individuals will develop skin cancer in their life. Many forms of skin cancer grow extremely slowly, taking twenty or more years to develop. However, some melanomas can grow quickly. Early discovery is critical in recovery, and cancer that is discovered during its early stages can be treated.
Skin cancer is a condition where malignant cells develop on the outer layers of the skin. These typically develop in areas that are commonly exposed to the sunlight, such as the face, neck, hands, and the arms.
Some people consider skin cancer to be a relatively minor health concern, and this is, for the most part, true. Most skin cancers are preventable, and easily cured when detected at an early stage, before it spreads to other organs inside the body.
Three Types of Skin Cancer:
Basal Cell Carcinoma:
Basal cell carcinomas are the most common forms of skin cancer, where lesions are seen on the head or neck area. These commonly appear in people who are 40 or older. These lesions are usually small, pearl colored, and often bleed. Over time, they will increase in size. Basal carcinoma will rarely be fatal.
Squamous cell carcinoma:
Squamous cell carcinomas often develop in those who are 50 or older, and on sun-damaged skin. Actinic keratosis can later develop into squamous cell carcinomas, and will appear as a raised patch of skin, is red, and scaly. It can spread to other parts, and will require radiation therapy or surgical removal to treat.
Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, and appears as a dark area on the skin. Shades can vary, between brown, black, and white, often featuring multiple colors. The average age of discovering melanoma is between 45 and 50, and its risks become higher as we age. Melanoma is often found on the back area for men, and on the legs for women. It can spread to other body parts through the blood or the lymph nodes, and needs to be treated immediately before this happens.
The largest factor in skin cancer is a person’s exposure to the sun. Living in a location that is sunny year round will increase the chances of developing skin cancer. The more sunburns you have, the greater the risk. Most people receive more than a quarter of their total exposure to the sun by the time that they are 18.
Artificial sources of UV radiation such as tanning booths also cause the same amount of skin damage, and have the same harmful effects. Fair skinned people, and those with more moles or freckles, as well as those with family history of skin cancer are at increased risk of developing skin cancers.
The best treatment for skin cancer, by far, is prevention, and early detection. Limiting exposure to the sun is the most important step that you can take. Stay in the shade, and use sunscreens with a SPF of 15 or higher, even during the winter. Properly covering your skin with hats and sunglasses can also make a significant difference.
A regular self-examination of your body for potential signs of skin cancer is key to early detection. Check your moles for any changes in appearance or sensitivity, and contact a dermatologist if you suspect that it may be skin cancer.
Where to look:
- Examine your head and face using mirrors. Don’t forget to examine your scalp, by moving your hair around.
- Check the neck region, chest, and torso. If you are a woman, check under your breasts.
- Examine the back side of your shoulders and neck using a second hand-held mirror. Your upper legs, back and buttocks should also be scoured.
- Examine the hands and the nails.
- Examine the lower legs and the foot. Don’t forget to check the heels and soles, and the nails.
- Use a small mirror to check your genitals.
Look out for:
- Sores that don’t appear to heal
- Unusual changes on the skin.
- Small smooth lumps
- Shiny, red or brown lumps
- Rough or scaly red spots, usually rough
Watching your moles for warning signs of potential melanoma:
- Sudden enlargement of moles
- Continuous increase in mole size
- Itchiness, mild tenderness or pain
- Flat mole increasing in height
- Smooth moles becoming scaly or rough. Erosion or oozing. Crusting, ulceration, and bleeding occur when the melanoma becomes more advanced.
- Reddening of surrounding skin, development of swelling or blemishes.
It is truly unfortunate that skin cancer is still responsible for the death of a person in North America every hour. Basal cell cancers and squamous cell carcinomas can be cured in over 99% of cases given early detection and treatment. Taking simple basic steps to protect yourself can prevent these most common forms of cancer from turning into a potentially fatal disease. Check your body regularly, and contact your dermatologist if you suspect any warning signs of skin cancer.