How to Detect and Treat Skin Cancer
Skin cancer is the abnormal growth of skin cells due to damaged DNA. The most common cause of skin cancer is Ultraviolet or UV radiation – typically as a result of prolonged, unprotected exposure to the sun or tanning beds.
Skin cancer represents, by far, the most common form of cancer in the United States. Over 3 million people are diagnosed with nonmelanoma skin cancer every year. More than 70,000 people were diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, in 2013.
Common (and Less Common) Types of Skin Cancer
- Basal Cell Carcinoma – slow growing cancer cells in the lowest layer of epidermis (top skin layer)
- Squamous Cell Carcinoma – faster growing cancer cells deeper in the skin
- Melanoma – A rarer but also more dangerous for of skin cancer
- Merkel Cell Carcinoma – A very rare but dangerous cancer of the top layer of the skin
- Lymphoma – Cancer that begins in the lymphocytes of the lymph nodes
- Kaposi Sarcoma – A cancer that forms in the lining of lymph or blood vessels
Causes of Skin Cancer
As mentioned above the most common cause of skin cancer is unprotected exposure to UV or ultraviolet rays. This occurs most frequently with exposure to the sun, tanning beds or tanning lamps. It is, however, important to remember that our exposure is not always related to tanning alone. The radiation can cause changes to our cell’s DNA. When our body is unable to repair these changes, the cell propagates the changes leading to abnormal cell growth.
Did you know that gel-based manicures are cured with UV rays? That means that the tips of your fingers can be exposure to concentrated, cancer-causing UV radiation. Try to avoid these manicures or, at very least, wear a suitable sunscreen on your fingers.
There are many risk factors that affect the incidence of skin cancer. And while the factors below create a higher risk, nobody is immune to the disease. Following are some of the most common risk factors in acquiring skin cancer:
- Excessive, prolonged or consistent exposure to the sun without using sunscreen
- Living in tropical or very sunny climates or living at high altitude
- Early-age exposure to the sun
- Early-age sunburn
- Being fair-skinned and having blond or red hair
- Genetic predisposition / family history of skin cancer
- Weakened immune system (for example from diseases such as HIV or drug therapy that suppresses the immune system or people who undergo chemotherapy for cancer)
Patients themselves can help prevent the spread of skin cancer. Patients should check their bodies for new or growing spots and moles as well as any change in the surface or symmetry of a mole. Basal and squamous cell carcinomas may vary in color from pale or yellow to pink and red. Some manifestations will be raised and others flat – some may even present as wounds that do not heal. Patients should also remember the ABCDE rule for melanoma:
A = Asymmetry – moles and spots that are not symmetric can be malignant
B = Borders that are irregular, jagged, notched (generally not smooth and well defined)
C = Color – Multiple, non-uniform colors in a spot or mole are a concern
D = Diameter – melanomas are usually larger than 6mm but may start smaller
E = Evolution – A mole that changes in shape or color or becomes larger over time should be evaluated or loses it color completely
Most importantly, patients should make a trip to their dermatologist a part of their annual check-up routine. If the dermatologist suspects higher risk, they may want to see the patient more frequently.
Remember, the key to successful treatment is early detection.
Treatment for Skin Cancer
The treatment for skin cancer, especially in its aggressive forms, needs to be swift in order to halt the potential spread of disease. Some forms of skin cancer require only an in-office visit to excise the cancerous tissue. Some of these procedures can be performed in a dermatologist or plastic surgeon’s office under local anesthetic.
Depending on the skin cancer location, some insurances will cover a Mohs’ procedure which is performed by specially trained dermatologists. Many patients prefer to have the defect closed by a plastic surgeon. More significant manifestations of skin cancer may require a surgical procedure performed in a hospital or surgery center. Depending on the spread of the cancer, radiation and chemotherapy may also need to be employed.
No two cases are the same. Thus, every patient requires a unique treatment protocol for their circumstance.