Over five million Americans have skin cancer, accounting for more cases than cancers of the breast, prostate, lung, and colon combined. But are you aware that there are different warning signs of skin cancer, and have you learned about the most common signs? Knowing what to look for could literally save your life.
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Why are the rates of skin cancer increasing?
Nowadays, we’re much more aware of the dangers of harmful UV rays from the sun and tanning beds. However, sunburn was once simply considered to be the price you paid to get a “healthy tan” and it was common to regularly use sunbeds to keep that so-called glow. This is why many people over the age of 50 are now suffering from skin cancer.
The two kinds of skin cancer
There are two kinds of skin cancer: non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC) and melanoma. Although melanoma is probably the one you’ve heard about most often, it’s actually much less common than NMSC, although it’s more deadly. NMSC is the commonest kind of warning signs of skin cancer, accounting for 90% of cases and 20% of all cancers. It comes in two forms.
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)
Basal cell carcinoma affects 2.8 million people in the US. It’s caused by exposure to UV rays and typically occurs in the areas easily exposed to the sun, such as the head, neck, ears, and face. Occasionally, it can develop in an old scar. This form is not hereditary, rarely spreads elsewhere in the body, and is relatively easily cured. People most likely to develop BCC have light skin coloring, may have had a previous BCC, or have had long-term exposure to UV rays from sunbathing, working outside, or over-using tanning beds.
BCC isn’t painful and causes skin lumps, redness, and scabs on the skin that often bleed but don’t heal. If left untreated, ulcers can develop, which is why BCC is also sometimes known as “rodent ulcer.” Treatment begins by removing the affected area, along with a small margin of healthy tissue around the site in order to prevent further spread. Radiotherapy may also be recommended.
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)
Squamous cell carcinoma affects 750,000 Americans annually, and 23% of cases of NMSC are of this type. In this form, exposure to UV rays alters the DNA structure in the outer skin layer, causing abnormal growth in the skin cells. It sometimes develops from other skin conditions, such as actinic keratosis (which forms scaly areas of skin), and Bowen’s disease. SCC can also develop as a result of other factors, such as radiation damage, burns, chronic ulcers, or in wounds and old scars.
This form is not hereditary, although familial characteristics such as very fair skin can make you more vulnerable. Other possible triggers include a suppressed immune system (e.g. leukemia and HIV), skin pigment conditions like albinism, and prolonged exposure to the sun. Organ transplant patients are also at risk because their drug regime includes the use of immunosuppressants to ensure the body doesn’t reject the new organ.
SCC causes red crusty lesions and ulcers to grow on the skin. Removal of the affected areas usually cures this form, but if untreated cancer can spread to other parts of the body. Sometimes radiotherapy or chemotherapy is also needed.
This form of skin cancer is the best known but the least common, with around 74,000 Americans developing it each year. It accounts for less than 2% of skin cancers but can be fatal if not caught early. Melanoma is caused by changes to skin pigmentation, so can often develop on moles on the body. In the early stage, a mole may change, getting larger, changing color, or growing more rapidly. If left untreated, cancer spreads to the lymphatic system and then causes secondary tumors elsewhere.
If caught early, removing the tumor is often sufficient, but if cancer has spread further then lymph nodes may also need to be taken out, followed by radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
Taking sensible precautions such as limiting exposure to the sun and using high factor sun cream can help prevent the development of skin cancer. If you notice any changes to your skin or any of the symptoms mentioned above, be sure to get a medical check-up as soon as possible.