See your doctor if you notice a mole growing or changing shape. You might have one of the main types of skin cancer: melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, or squamous cell carcinoma.
Skin cancers mainly occur because of exposure to the sun — which is why you should cover your body even on the beach, and use sunscreen when outdoors working or exercising in the sun, even in winter. You should also be very wary of indoor tanning salons. In fact, about a dozen countries and U.S. states bar anyone younger than 18 from using an indoor tanning device.
Here's facts you should know about the main types of skin cancer.
Treated early, a skin melanoma is almost always curable, but if the cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it can kill. More than 10,000 people in the United States die of a skin melanoma every year, the Skin Cancer Foundation reports.
Avoid sunburns. Your risk of melanoma doubles if you have had more than five sunburns. Some people are genetically prone to melanoma, so be especially careful if anyone in your family has had skin cancer. Wearing a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day cuts your risk of melanoma in half.
Get to know the moles on your body, so you’ll notice a new one. Ordinary moles are symmetrical, with even borders; they are one color and don’t change shape or color over time. Melanomas often look like moles at first, and are usually black or brown, but they can be skin-colored, pink, red, purple, blue, or white. Melanomas are more likely to be lopsided, with scalloped or notched borders, and might be more than one shade. They tend to be wider than the tip of a pencil eraser. Check out these photos of melanomas at the Skin Cancer Foundation, but don’t hesitate to see a doctor if you’re concerned about any mole.
Melanomas can be removed surgically. A procedure called Mohs micrographic surgery has become more common and has high success rates. If the cancer has spread, the options include ways of boosting the immune system, radiation and chemotherapy.
Around half of Americans who live to age 65 will develop one of two kinds of skin cancer — a basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma — at least once.
Basal cell carcinoma
The least dangerous and most common form of skin cancer, basal cell carcinomas look like open sores, red or pink patches, shiny bumps, or scars. They almost never spread, but don’t ignore them. They can get uglier over time, and you need to be sure you don’t have a melanoma or squamous cell carcinoma, which can spread. You can treat a basal cell carcinoma with one of two prescription creams, or a variety of out-patient procedures. Depending on the growth, a doctor can remove it with an electric needle, scalpel, or x-ray, or by freezing or exposing it to lasers or photodynamic (blue light) therapy. More than 4 million cases of basal cell carcinoma are diagnosed in the U.S. each year.
Squamous cell carcinoma
This kind of cancer is less common — there are around a million new U.S. cases a year — but dangerous, if untreated: nearly 9,000 Americans die of these each year. Squamous cell carcinomas often look like scaly red patches or open sores and may crust or bleed; they tend to show up on parts of your body that show signs of sun damage, with freckles, deep wrinkles, or age spots. The rim of your ear or a balding scalp are some unexpected places you might find one. But you can also get a squamous cell carcinoma in a burn, scars, ulcer, or spot exposed to x-rays or arsenic and petroleum by-products. Once you’ve had a squamous cell carcinoma, get regular total-body skin exams from a doctor. A squamous cell carcinoma on your nose, ears, and lip is more likely to recur. Again, early treatment is a cure and there are a variety of options.
People with light skin, blond or red hair, and blue, green, or grey eyes are likely to develop scaly, crusty growths called solar or actinic keratoses if they live long enough and sunbathe or are active in the sun without sunscreen. About 10 percent of these growths turn into squamous cell carcinomas. Be sure to get any noticeable patches checked out and treated.
The bottom line: the main types of skin cancer are common, but you can cut your chances by protecting yourself from the sun. Make sure you check yourself from head to toe monthly, and see your doctor each year for a skin examination. Finally, promptly treat any new growths on your skin.
March 30, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN