Facts On Skin Cancer

Reviewed by James Brann, M.D.

Skin cancer is one of the most prevalent yet overlooked forms of cancer today. Every year in the United States alone more than 1 million people are diagnosed with skin cancer. The most serious form, melanoma, is responsible for more than 10,000 deaths every year. Almost 60,000 people will visit their doctor this year alone and find out they have this deadly form of skin cancer.

What can you do to protect yourself? The obvious answer is stay out of the sun or use protection. While this may seem simple, most people find during their busy lives it's not so easy to do. Many people simply forget to use sunscreen. Others enjoy the look of sun kissed skin. They feel that having a suntan is good for their body. If this describes you, you need to think again.

Important Information About Skin Cancer
Your skin is the largest organ in or on your entire body. It's job is to protect your other organs from injury and to protect your body from bacteria and other microbes that might otherwise invade. Your skin also helps regulate your body temperature among other things.

There are many different kinds of skin cancer, all of which result from too much exposure to ultraviolet radiation (the kind that comes from the sun and tanning). Let's look at each type more closely.

Basal Or Squamous Cell Cancer
This type of skin cancer or nonmelanoma typically occurs in the cells of the outer layer of the skin. Usually basal and squamous or nonmelanoma cancers form on the ears, neck, lips, face or on other frequently exposed areas of the body like the hands. This type of cancer usually will not spread, but may eventually lead to a more serious problem, like melanoma.

Melanoma
This is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. It forms in the cells of the skin that produce pigment or melanin. Normally these pigments or melanin help protect the skin from the sun. Too much exposure however to the sun overextended periods of time can lead to dangerous cell changes and subsequent melanoma. While usually curable in the early stages, this form of skin cancer is responsible for most deaths associated with skin cancer. The American Cancer Society suggests that more than 10,000 people will die of some form of skin cancer in 2005 alone, most of these from melanoma type skin cancers.

Are You At Risk?
Some people are more at risk than others for skin cancer. These include:
  • People with fair or light complexion.

  • Frequent tanners or sunbathers.

  • Anyone that works outdoors in the sun regularly.

  • Routine unprotected exposure to UV radiation from the sun or other sources (like tanning beds).

  • Anyone with a family history of cancer or skin cancer.

  • People who have irregularly shaped or many moles on the body.

  • Anyone who suffered severe childhood sunburns.
What To Look For
Fortunately the cure rate for most skin cancers is high when detected early. Thus you should always be on the lookout for abnormal changes in the skin. You should also visit your dermatologist or family doctors at least once per year if in a high risk group to have your skin checked for abnormal moles or changes. Signs of skin cancer may include:
  • Changes in the skin, especially those associated with the size or color of a mole.

  • Any new growths on the skin.

  • A mole that bleeds or oozes.

  • Pigmentation or darkened areas of a mole that extend outside the typical border of the mole.

  • Painful, tingling or itchiness in a mole or other raised are of skin.
Protecting Yourself From Skin Cancer
Fortunately you can protect yourself from skin cancer. The best protection is avoiding extended hours in the sun without protection. The sign is hottest and strongest usually between the hours of 10 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon. Thus if possible stay in the shade during these hours.

Here are some other suggestions to help protect yourself:
  • Wear a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses when out in the sun.

  • Use a sun block or sunscreen with at least an SPF of 30.

  • Re-apply sun block if in the sun for 3 hours or more.

  • Cover exposed areas of your body with protective and comfortable clothing.

  • Avoid tanning booths, which can also promote skin cancer. They are generally not safer than tanning in the sun.

  • If you use a self tanner, remember you still need to use sun block to protect your skin from a sunburn.

  • Apply sun block 15-20 minutes before going out in the sun.
Remember, skin cancer is a deadly disease. Fortunately there are many steps you can take to protect yourself from skin cancer. Don't forget to have any unusual moles or skin changes checked out by your doctor. And always, always use sun block when out in the sun!