As we head to the beaches this summer, awareness about skin cancer and the harmful effects of sun exposure is of vital importance. The most common form of cancer in the United States is cancer of the skin. One million skin cancers are diagnosed every year in this country and the average American has a 20 percent chance of developing skin cancer during his or her lifetime.
The most common type of skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma. Basal cell carcinoma is usually a pink or flesh-colored papule with visible blood vessels. This type of skin cancer has the best prognosis, as it is extremely rare to be associated with the spreading of the cancer to other areas of the body (metastasis). However, it can be destructive, with its potential to invade the deeper layers of the skin and damage tissue. Basal cell carcinoma is thought to be caused by harmful ultraviolet rays and is most commonly found on sun exposed areas such as the face. Basal cell carcinoma also can develop on non-sun exposed areas. It is treated with a variety of methods, including surgical removal, electrosurgical destruction, and topical therapy.
The second most common type of skin cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma is usually a tender, crusted nodule with a tendency to bleed and scab. If squamous cell carcinoma is diagnosed and treated early, the prognosis is generally quite good. Failure to treat early can result in the spread of cancer cells to lymph nodes and other areas. This type of cancer kills 2,500 American annually. Squamous cell carcinoma is very likely caused by sun exposure, especially chronic cumulative exposure. It is also treated with surgical removal, electrosurgery, and topical therapies.
Melanoma is the third and most deadly of all skin cancers. About 8,000 Americans die of melanoma each year and the number of new cases per year is rising. It is usually a black, irregularly pigmented, asymmetric skin lesion with variable shades of color that arises within a previously-existing mole or within normal skin. Any changing mole should be examined by a dermatologist. Melanoma, if discovered and treated early, can be associated with a decent prognosis. If however it is not treated early, metastasis and death can occur. Sunburn is a major risk factor for this type of skin cancer. It is treated with surgical excision and, in some cases, lymph node dissection
Exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun may be responsible for 90 percent of nonmelanoma skin cancers and 65 percent of melanomas. It used to be said that the majority of sun exposure occurs during the first 18 years of a person’s life. This has been proven to be untrue – there is a more even distribution of sun exposure over the course of a lifetime. Indoor tanning also increases a person’s risk of developing skin cancer. A single exposure to a tanning bed during youth increases melanoma risk by 75 percent, squamous cell carcinoma by 2.5 times and basal cell carcinoma by 1.5 times. Not only does ultraviolet light exposure increase one’s risk of skin cancer, but it is also responsible for 90 percent of the changes that lead to aging of the skin.
Protect yourself and your family from the harmful effects of sunlight by taking the following measures. Please be sun smart!
- Apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen or sunblock with an SPF of 15 or higher to sun-exposed areas, on both sunny and cloudy days. Reapply frequently.
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, long-sleeved shirt, and pants.
- Look for shade.
- Understand that there is no safe way to tan. Tanning occurs as a response to ultraviolet damage of the skin.
- Talk to your doctor about healthy ways of getting Vitamin D – not from the sun.