Skin cancer is a disease caused by abnormal cell growth in your skin tissues. This can happen when something changes how your skin cells normally grow, such as exposure to ultraviolet light. Like other types of cancer, it requires a diagnosis from a medical professional. However, you can still be on the lookout for skin cancer symptoms and other cancer warning signs even if you can’t make an appointment with your primary doctor right away.
What is the Risk of Developing Skin Cancer?
About one in five people develop skin cancer in their lifetimes, making it the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States. It can affect anyone, but those with lighter skin, blond or red hair, and a family history of skin cancer are more likely to show symptoms. It is also more likely to affect older people and those with skin that burns or freckles easily. Frequent exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun also increases the risk of developing this type of cancer.
What Are Some Common Signs and Symptoms?
The most common symptoms of skin cancer are changes to your skin. These can be new skin growths, sores that don’t completely heal, or changes to moles. The easiest type to spot is melanoma. If you notice a mole or spot with an asymmetrical shape, an irregular border, or an uneven color, it could be cancerous, especially if it has grown in the last few weeks or months. Make an appointment with your doctor if you notice any of these signs of skin cancer.
What are the Differences Between Melanoma and Non-Melanoma Skin Cancers?
Melanoma may be the easiest skin cancer to spot, but it isn’t the only type that affects people. Basal cell carcino fma forms on the lower part of your epidermis (the outermost layer of your skin) and appears as itchy bumps or scaly lesions on your skin. At the same time, squamous cell carcinoma primarily affects older individuals and those who are exposed to too much UV radiation. Squamous cell carcinoma often presents as rough bumps or growths that may bleed, crust over, and sores that either never completely hear or heal and return.
What Steps Should be Taken if Skin Cancer is Suspected?
If you notice any signs, you should make an appointment with a dermatologist as soon as possible. Most skin cancer can be treated if caught early enough, but it can be deadly if allowed to spread to your lymph nodes.
When you make an appointment with a dermatologist, they will first ask you if you’ve noticed any changes to existing moles or if you notice any new skin growths. Next, they will examine your skin to check for any possible signs. The dermatologist will likely perform a biopsy if a suspicious mole or spot is found. A biopsy is when a small tissue sample is taken from the suspicious area and examined in a laboratory. The doctor will inform you whether the spot is cancerous and your treatment options.
What Treatments Are Available?
The survival rate for people with skin cancer is very high if the cancer is caught and treated quickly before it can spread. Treatment options include:
- Cryotherapy, in which the cancerous growth is frozen with liquid nitrogen. The frozen tissue sloughs off after treatment.
- Excisional surgery, in which the tumor and surrounding healthy tissue are removed to ensure the cancer is completely gone.
- Mohs surgery, in which only the cancerous tissue is removed. This is often used to treat basal cell and squamous carcinoma as well as cancer that develops in sensitive areas such as the face, scalp, fingers, or genital area.
- Chemotherapy, either through topical medications that are applied directly to the skin or with pills or an IV if the cancer has spread to other parts of your body.
- Radiation therapy, in which radiation is used to target and kill cancer cells.
- Photodynamic therapy, in which the skin is coated with medication that is then activated with a blue or red fluorescent light. The medication kills the cancerous cells while leaving healthy tissue alone.
As with all medical treatments, these skin cancer treatments have possible side effects. Some of the more common side effects of skin cancer treatments include:
- Bleeding, swelling, and scarring where cancerous tissue was removed
- Nausea, vomiting, and hair loss with chemotherapy
- Nerve damage.
- The possibility that the cancer could return
What are the Best Protective Measures to Avoid Skin Cancer?
Limiting exposure to ultraviolet radiation is the best way to avoid developing skin cancer. While this doesn’t mean that you have to avoid sunlight, it does mean that you should always wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher when you spend time outside. Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants outside, especially if you burn or freckle easily. If you feel like you cannot handle too much sunlight, try to stay indoors on sunny days between 10 AM and 4 PM.
Since skin cancer can happen to anyone, you must keep a close eye on your skin for possible skin cancer symptoms. Check your skin regularly, especially if you have lighter skin, are over 65, or have a family history. If you suspect that you have skin cancer, schedule an appointment with your primary doctor as soon as possible. It may be the most common cancer in the United States, but it is also easy to treat if it is caught early enough.