Skin Cancer Basics
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, and it’s on the rise. Skin cancer forms when DNA (which contains genetic information) is damaged and can’t be repaired by the body. This in turn leads to a rapid growth of damaged cells, which causes the formation of a tumor.
It is very slow to develop, with the effects of a single sunburn not often noticeable until some twenty years later.
Types of Skin Cancer and Rates of Survival
Early detection and treatment is key in increasing the rate of survival. Because skin cancer usually forms in the external layer of the skin (epidermis), it is generally detectable at an early stage.
The rate of cancer survival depends on the type of cancer and how early the cancer is diagnosed.
There are three types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma; squamous cell carcinoma; and melanoma.
- Basal cell carcinoma can cause serious illness if not detected and treated early. However, with an early diagnosis and treatment, it has a cure rate of over 90%.
- Squamous cell carcinoma also has a cure rate of more than 90% when detected and treated early. It too can lead to illness if left untreated.
- Melanoma is a type of cancer that causes more than 75% of all deaths from skin cancer. Melanoma is characterized by the presence of cancerous (malignant) cells. Melanoma can spread to the organs, especially the lungs and liver. Once melanoma spreads, the cure rate is drastically reduced and can lead to death. However, if detected early, melanoma is curable.
Signs of Skin Cancer: What To Look for
Skin cancer symptoms include changes in the skin, especially in the size and color of moles, as well as new growths or dark spots. Bleeding, scaling and changes in bumps on the skin can also be signs of cancer.
Moles should always be monitored in case of changes, following the "ABCD" approach. Changes to look for are: Asymmetry (the two halves of the mole don’t look the same); Borders (irregularity); Color (different areas made up of different shades, including black, brown, tan, blue, red, black); Diameter (greater than 6 mm in size, roughly the size of a pencil eraser).
This approach should be applied to moles found all over the body, including hard-to-see places like the shoulders and back. Itchiness, tenderness and pain can also be skin cancer warning signs.
What Factors Increase the Risk of Skin Cancer?
Factors that increase the risk of developing skin cancer include unprotected or prolonged exposure to UV radiation (from the sun, tanning beds and sun lamps). People with fair complexions and who have blond or red hair or blue or green eyes are also more susceptible to skin cancer.
Other factors include a personal or family history of skin cancer, as well as the number of serious sunburns incurred during childhood. Having several atypical moles can also lead to skin cancer. Decreased immunity to disease due to organ transplants also make a person more susceptible to developing skin cancer.
Prevention: How Can the Risk of Skin Cancer Be Minimized?
Skin cancer is a largely preventable disease and some simple steps can help drastically reduce a person’s probability of developing it.
Limiting sun exposure between 10 am and 4 pm, when the sun’s rays are strongest minimizes the risk of developing skin cancer. Applying a sunscreen with a SPF of 15 or higher is also important, as is avoiding tanning booths and lamps. Sunscreen should be applied year round.
Skin Cancer and Hormones
While women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with melanoma, research hasn’t proved whether there is a link between skin cancer and hormones, including those related to the Pill, hormone replacement therapy, pregnancy and female sex hormones.
There is also no evidence to prove that pregnant women with melanoma have more pregnancy complications than pregnant women who don’t have melanoma. The belief that moles are more likely to become malignant during pregnancy is false.
For smaller and shallower forms of cancer, treatment of skin cancer usually involves surgery. Skin grafts follow surgery if the cancer covers a relatively large area.
When cancer is deeper and covers a greater area, chemotherapy or radiation is often performed in addition to surgery. Radiation and chemotherapy target rapidly dividing cells, including cancerous cells.
However, because cells other than cancerous ones also divide quickly, including hair and blood cells, these treatments often result in hair loss and weakened immune systems.