The primary cause of skin cancer is ultraviolet radiation-most often from the sun, but also from artificial sources like sunlamps and tanning boots. Researchers believe that the desired perfect tan, an increase in outdoor activities, and perhaps the thinning of the earth’s protective ozone layer are behind the alarming rise we’re now seeing in skin cancers.
Anyone can get skin cancer-no matter what your skin type, race, or age, no matter where you live or what you do. Risk is greater if for individuals with:
- Fair skin that freckles easily
- Light-colored hair and eyes
- Large number of moles, or moles of unusual shape or size
- Family history of skin cancer or a personal history of blistering sunburn
- Significant time working or playing outdoors
- Residence closer to the equator, at a higher altitude, or in any place that gets intense, year-round sunshine
- Therapeutic radiation treatments for adolescent acne.
Recognizing Skin Cancer
Cancer may begin as:
Small, white or pink nodule or bump; can be smooth and shiny, waxy, or pitted on the surface
Red spot that’s rough, dry
Scaly firm, red lump that may form a crust
Crusted group of nodules
Sore that bleeds or doesn’t heal after two to four weeks
White patch that looks like scar tissue
Malignant melanoma is usually signaled by a change in the size, shape, or color of an existing mole, or as a new growth on normal skin. Watch for the “ABCD” warning signs of melanoma:
Asymmetry - a growth with unmatched halve
Border irregularity - ragged or blurred edges
Color- a mottled appearance, with shades of tan, brown, and black, sometimes mixed with red, white, or blue
Diameter - a growth more than 6 millimeters across (about the size of a pencil eraser), or any unusual increase in size
Get to know your skin and examine it regularly, from the top of your head to the soles of your feet. Don’t forget your back. If you notice any unusual changes on any part of your body, schedule an appointment with a physician.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Skin cancer is diagnosed by removing all or part of the growth and examining its cells under a microscope. It can be treated by a number of methods, depending on the type of cancer, its stage of growth, and its location on your body.
Most skin cancers are removed surgically, by a plastic surgeon or a dermatologist. If the cancer is small, the procedure can be done quickly and easily, in an outpatient facility or the physician’s office, using local anesthesia. The procedure may be a simple excision, which usually leaves a thin, barely visible scar. Or curettage and desiccation may be performed. In this procedure the cancer is scraped out with a special instrument and the area is treated with an electric current to control bleeding and kill any remaining cancer cells. This leaves a slightly larger, white scar. In either case, the risks of the surgery are low.
If the cancer is large, however, or if it has spread to the lymph glands or elsewhere in the body, major surgery may be required. Other possible treatments for skin cancer include cryosurgery (freezing the cancer cells), radiation therapy (using x-rays), topical chemotherapy (anti-cancer drugs applied to the skin), and Mohs surgery, a special procedure in which the cancer is shaved off one layer at a time. (Mohs surgery is performed only by specially trained physicians and often requires a reconstructive procedure as follow-up.)