Skin cancer is currently the most common form of cancer in the U.S. One in five adults will develop some form of the disease during their lifetime. One person dies of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, every hour. If these numbers shock you then you are not alone. Yet, even though this form of cancer is so prevalent it remains one of the least understood, surrounded by a multitude of popular myths.
The Three W’s of Skin Cancer
Any understanding of skin cancer must begin with the three common W’s: What, Where and Why. What is skin cancer? It is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells. This growth is sparked by DNA mutations or genetic defects. When damage is done to the skin cells, most notably by prolonged exposure to the ultra violet rays of the sun, abnormal cells expand and grow, causing cancerous lesions on the surface of the skin.
There are several different types of skin cancer including actinic keratosis, basal cell carcinoma, dysplastic nevi, melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma. We discuss many of these on other pages of our site. Each of these can be identified by careful examination of the skin. They can occur on almost any part of the body, but are most prominent in areas that receive the most exposure to the sun, including the face, arms, legs, chest and back.
Of course the most prominent question asked in regard to any form of cancer is why does it occur? In this case, it is the result of damage to the skin. There are many factors that can cause this kind of damage, including exposure to harsh chemicals and genetic predisposition, but by far the most common cause is sun exposure. The sun’s UVA and UVB rays can be extremely harmful and over time, exposure to this type of light can have a serious effect on the skin.
Separating Fact From Fiction
Because there are so many myths surrounding skin cancer, the facts can easily get lost along the way. Perhaps the biggest myth is that skin cancer is not deadly. In fact, more than 12,000 people die annually from the disease, most of those from melanoma. For this reason, it is vital to catch it early. This is particularly true of melanomas, as they can become extremely invasive if they are not treated right away.
In order to stay on top of potential problems, it is important to know your own skin. Doing a regular head to toe examination will allow you to recognize its normal condition and quickly spot any irregularities that may crop up. We all have some common, non-threatening skin abnormalities including moles, age spots and skin tags, but skin cancers are much more serious and learning to recognize them among your regular skin blemishes is crucial.
When it comes to melanoma, the importance of early detection is so vital that doctors have developed a handy method to help people identify potential problems. It is called the ABCDE method and it covers all of the major conditions that you want to be on the lookout for. The first is Asymmetry. Skin cancers will have jagged edges and if you drew a line down their center the two sides would not match, whereas most moles are more evenly shaped. B stands for border; if a mark on your skin has a pronounced border or a border of a different color than the rest of the spot, then chances are it is cancerous.
Color is another major indicator. Skin cancers tend to have more than one color, while moles and freckles are solid. Diameter can also help you to judge severity. The larger a spot is, the more likely it is to be cancerous. Most cancerous lesions will be larger than a pencil eraser. And finally, if the size, shape and color of a spot are constantly Evolving, then it is likely cancerous. Moles and freckles will retain the same size and shape throughout your life.
As with most cancers, the sooner you can get a diagnosis and begin treatment the better. Treatment generally involves removing the lesion. The invasiveness of the surgery will depend on how deep the cancer has penetrated and whether or not it has spread. Depending on severity, you may or may not also need radiation. If you have any unusual spots that appear on your body, you should consult your doctor to determine whether treatment is necessary.
Don’t Underestimate This Opponent
There are several myths surrounding skin cancer and sun exposure. Most people believe that only bright, sunny days can cause damage and that applying sunscreen once a day is all the prevention you need. In fact, even on cloudy days you can still be exposed to high levels of dangerous ultraviolet light. And even the best sunscreen will lose its effectiveness after several hours, so the longer you are outside, the more frequently you should reapply it.
And contrary to popular belief, not all sunscreens are created equally. While most people judge effectiveness according to a product’s SPF rating, recent studies have shown that it is the ability to block both UVB and UVA rays that is really crucial when it comes to preventing skin cancer. Using a broad spectrum sunscreen will give you maximum protection even on the cloudiest of days. And don’t assume that tanning beds are safer than the sun. These beds produce UVA and UVB rays as well, so they do not provide a better solution.
Many people also believe that having darker skin means you aren’t likely to develop skin cancer. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While light skinned individuals may be at greater risk, that doesn’t mean African Americans, Hispanics and Asians are safe. Because their darker pigmentation makes it harder to detect abnormalities, there is a 20-40 percent greater risk of late stage diagnoses among patients of color, which subsequently leads to a higher mortality rate.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
When it comes to skin cancer, the numbers don’t lie. If you want to cut down your chances of developing it, you need to be careful about sun exposure and aware of any skin abnormalities that you may develop. The best way to beat the odds is by being proactive. Early detection means easier treatment and a better outcome.
The most dangerous thing you can do is to take skin cancer too lightly. This is a very real threat and one that can become deadly if you don’t stay one step ahead.