When cells displaying uncontrolled growth, invasion, or metastasis (spread) arise in the tissues of the skin, a cancer is formed. There are three common forms of skin cancer:
Basal Cell Carcinoma: These cancers develop in the small, round cells (basal cells) located in the base of the outer layer of skin.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma: These cancers arise in the flat calls (squamous cells) that form the surface the skin.
Melanoma: These cancers develop in the melanocytes of the skin. Melanocytes are responsible for producing skin pigment, which determines skin color.
Most skin cancers develop in older people on portions of the skin commonly exposed to sunlight. Skin cancer is the most common malignancy in North America, accounting for approximately 1,000,000 new diagnoses annually.
Skin Cancer Risk Factors
The following factors may elevate your skin cancer risk:
- Skin Color: People with fair skin have less melanin (pigment) in their skin. Melanin protects the skin form the sun’s harmful UV radiation. If you freckle or sunburn easily, you are more likely to develop a skin cancer. Furthermore, people with blonde or red hair, or light-colored eyes are more likely to develop a skin cancer.
- Exposure to the Sun: People who spend excessive amounts of time in the sun have elevated skin cancer risk. Regular tanning is also a skin cancer risk factor. A tan is your skin’s response to injuries obtained from UV radiation exposure.
- Moles: People who have many moles or abnormal moles are more likely to develop a skin cancer. Abnormal moles are irregular in shape and larger in size than normal moles.
- Sunburn History: Each time you are sunburned, you are damaging your skin’s cells. People who are frequently sunburned have elevated skin cancer risk.
- Climate: People who live in extremely sunny or high altitude climates are more likely to develop a skin cancer. Sunlight is stronger at high altitudes because the thinner atmosphere is less able to filter the sun’s UV radiation.
- Weakened Immune System: People with AIDS, certain cancers, and other illness that result in a weakened immune system have increased skin cancer risk.
- Chemical Exposure: Exposure to certain herbicides may increase your skin cancer risk.
- Age: Skin cancer risk increases with age. This is primarily due to the fact that most skin cancers develop slowly. As a result, skin damage that occurs early in life may not become physically apparent until middle age or later.
- Family History of Skin Cancer: If any of your family members have been diagnosed with a skin cancer, you are more likely to develop the disease yourself.
- Personal History of Skin cancer: If you have already been diagnosed with a skin cancer, you are more likely to develop the disease again. Skin cancers that are diagnosed and removed can recur in same location, often within a year or two.
Skin Cancer Outlook
Skin cancers generally yield a very positive outlook (prognosis). Approximately 85-95% of all non-melanoma skin cancers can be completely cured. Skin cancer is responsible for less than 1% of cancer related death, yet it is the most common form of cancer.
Melanoma is a rare, but aggressive form of skin cancer. Five-year survival rates associated with early-stage melanomas are between 85-95%. Later-stage melanomas, however, yield five-year survival rates below 60%.
Skin Cancer Prevention
Skin cancer is a highly preventable disease. Most preventative measures associated with skin cancer involve minimizing your exposure to the sun:
Always Wear Sunscreen: Year-round, wear a sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or more. Apply liberal amounts of sunscreen on all of your sun-exposed skin. Remember, your lips, ears, and the backs of your hands and feet are also susceptible to sun damage.
Avoid Sun Exposure Between 10:00am and 4:00pm: The sun’s radiation is at its strongest during this period of the day. If you can, reschedule your outdoor activities for other times of the day. If it’s cloudy during these hours, it doesn’t mean that you are protected from the sun’s UV radiation. Clouds offer very little protection form the sun.
- Stay Away From Tannin beds and Tan-Accelerating Products: Although it is fashionable to have sun-bronzed skin, it is not conducive to good health. Tanning beds emit a form of UV ray that may be just as damaging as the sun’s harmful UV rays. Ask yourself, is a tan worth the risk?
- Be Conscious of Your Medications: Many medications, even some common over-the-counter drugs, can make your skin more sensitive to the sun’s UV rays.
- Regular Skin Exams: Check your skin often for changes in your skins appearance and texture. Pay close attention to any freckles, moles, birthmarks, or bumps that change in shape, size, or color. If you notice such changes, you should consult your doctor immediately.