Skin Cancer: Critical Steps to Health
We want to emphasize the fact that knowledge is powerful, preventative, and life saving. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends annual full-body skin exams because early detection of skin cancer is the key to beating it. If we find something, we do a biopsy. It is truly better to know so you can take action. We urge you to set up an appointment today so you can keep on being the amazing person you are!
Just like breast self-exams, checking your own skin every month should be part of your routine. Follow these self-exam instructions. Please read on to learn a little about the various forms of skin cancer and how to protect yourself.
First, the 2 least dangerous forms skin cancers:
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer—or any cancer—and the least serious of any cancer. Not to make light of the issue, but if you had to pick one, this would be the "best" cancer to choose. Basal cell carcinoma is a direct result of sun damage occurring exclusively on parts of the body that are exposed to the sun, particularly the head and neck. Not surprisingly, fair skin types are at higher risk, but it can also be seen in people with darker skin tones. While rarely fatal, if left untreated it continues to grow so it's important to have small affected areas treated surgically while they are small. Yes, that’ll leave a little scar, but if untreated it will leave an even bigger scar.
What to look for:
Basal cell carcinoma looks like a spot or pimple that that doesn't heal—it scabs, peels, and keeps recurring. Be sure not to mistake it for acne.
Squamous cell carcinoma is less common than basal cell carcinoma, but more common as you get older. It’s a bit more serious than basal cell because there is some risk of it spreading, particularly on areas like the nose, lips, eyelids, and ears. It too is the result of sun exposure, but can also crop up in areas affected by radiation, burns, scarring, and other prior skin damage.
What to look for:
Squamous cell carcinoma appears as a red or pink scaly or crusted lesion that doesn't heal or go away. It too can be mistaken for a patch of psoriasis or eczema.
Prevention for both basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma:
AVOID THE SUN and all other forms of UV light, including tanning beds! Read about the dangers of tanning salons in one of our previous blog posts here.
Remember: THERE IS NO SAFE TAN!
Protection is the best prevention. We recommend Elta sunscreens, especially Elta UV Sport for people who enjoy sports and lots of outdoor activity. Summer or winter, it’s important to remember the sun is powerful whether it’s warm or cold.
We also like Heliocare, an antioxidant herbal supplement that gradually builds your body’s natural defense against damaging UV rays. Taken daily, it increases your sun protection for 3-4 hours at a 10-15 SPF level. However, it is not a stand-alone treatment and should be used in conjunction with broad-spectrum, topical sunscreen lotions.
If you just have to have that sun-kissed look, please use a product like Avene Self Tanner. Self-tanners are for occasional use only so don’t overdo it. Also, a fake tan will not protect you from the sun and you will burn just as easily.
Now for the tough one: Melanoma
Malignant Melanoma is very different from the first 2 cancers because it can be very serious. It can grow more deeply into the skin, spread to other parts of the body—often quickly—and can be life threatening. Sadly, melanoma does not discriminate and can occur in young people and be just as life threatening. However, if it’s caught early it is almost always curable. That's why we’re SO adamant about annual full-body skin exams. Finding melanoma early in its treatable and curable stage, is one of the few occasions for a dermatologist to save a life.
Melanoma is linked to sun and UV light exposure, but in a less direct way. In this case, the sun damages the immune system in the skin, not just the surface. In this way, sun exposure on one area of the skin can affect any skin surface anywhere on the rest of your entire body. This allows melanoma to appear anywhere on the body including areas that were never or rarely exposed to the sun. This can be between the toes, on the bottoms of the feet, or on the buttocks (depending upon how daring your swimsuits are). The most commonly affected area for men is the back, while for women it’s the legs.
Now we know melanoma has a genetic link so if someone in your immediate family has had melanoma, you have an increased risk. In such cases, taking care of yourself and all family members is imperative. Don’t think you’re an exception—play it safe and get checked.
What to look for:
Typically, melanomas are pigmented. They have color and look a bit like a mole that has gone awry. They may have changed shape or color and are brown, black, or blue. They usually present without any symptoms at all. Typically, if they are bleeding or scabbing, it may mean they have progressed to a more advanced stage.
The ABCDs of melanoma:
A for asymmetry
B for irregular, jagged, or notched borders
C for color: any spot that’s becoming brown, black, or blue or is several colors
D for a diameter greater than 6 mm or ¼"
—about the size of a pencil eraser
E added for evolution or changing over time
(Please note that elevation is not one of the descriptive features even though patients tend to focus on that as a criteria.)
E is also for empowered, which is what we want our patients to be!
Be well this May and every month.