With the days growing longer and warmer, many people are outside enjoying the sunshine more often. However, prolonged exposure to unprotected skin comes with risks. According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is by far the most common type of cancer. It is important to know how to protect your skin as well as the risks, prevention and treatments for skin cancer.
There are differences in the forms of skin cancer and some, like basal and squamous cell skin cancers, are most common. They start in the top layer of skin and are often related to sun exposure. These cancers grow in the epidermis, the top layer of skin, and are usually removed completely to avoid spreading to other areas. Skin cancers like melanoma, while less common, are more likely to spread if left untreated.
Because exposure to UV rays is one of the most common risk factors for skin cancer, the most important way to lower your risk of skin cancers is to limit your exposure to these rays. Look for ways to reduce sun exposure by using and diligently reapplying sunscreen (with an SPF of at least 30), wearing protective clothing including hats and sunglasses and limiting sun exposure when the rays of the sun are strongest between 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Also, avoid tanning lamps which give off UV rays and damage the skin. Another risk factor, smoking, has also been linked to an increased risk of squamous cell skin cancer among other cancers.
Knowing your own skin is important to finding skin cancer early. Any spots on the skin that are new or changing in size, shape or color should be checked by a doctor. Any unusual sore, lump, blemish, marking or change in the way an area of the skin looks or feels may be a sign of skin cancer or a warning that it might occur.
Dr. Nasreen Vohra, surgical oncologist and associate professor of surgery at ECU/Vidant Health said, “Remembering the A, B, C, D, E rule for skin cancer, particularly melanoma, is an important step in a skin self-exam. For A, look for asymmetrical shapes to skin lesions. For B, check the borders of these lesions; irregular borders are more concerning. C is for color, take notice if the lesion is unevenly pigmented or if there are changes in color. D is for the diameter of the lesion, and if it is greater than 6 millimeters, or the size of a pencil eraser, this could be concerning. Finally, E is for evolving, so pay attention if the lesion is changing in any noticeable way.”
Some doctors and other health care professionals do skin exams as part of routine health check-ups. If the doctor thinks a suspicious area might be skin cancer, the area will be removed and sent to a lab to be examined. If the biopsy removes the entire tumor, it may be all that is needed to cure basal and squamous cell skin cancers. However, additional procedures may be required if the cancer is deep or involving the edges.
There are different types of skin biopsies. The doctor will choose one based on the suspected type of skin cancer, where it is on your body, its size, and other factors. Spread of the cancer deeply below the skin or to other parts of the body is uncommon for squamous cell cancers and rare for basal cell cancers, so most people with one of these skin cancers do not need imaging tests. However, imaging tests such as MRI and CT scans may be done if your doctor thinks you might be at risk for the cancer spreading outside the skin.
Fortunately, most of these cancers and pre-cancers can be cured with fairly minor surgery or other types of local treatments. It is important to discuss all of your treatment options, including their goals and possible side effects, with your doctors to help make the decision that best fits your needs.
“One of the most important factors to remember is skin damage is cumulative and the negative effects on your skin during your early years makes an impact on your skin health as you age,” Dr. Vohra said. Given this, you should be mindful of ways to reduce your exposure to harmful UV rays, such as avoiding direct exposure when they are the most intense, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Also, wear protective clothing such as hats and sunglasses with prolonged sun exposure. These are important, proactive steps for avoiding skin damage and maintaining skin health.
For more information about the risks and prevention of skin cancer, or if you do not have a primary care provider, please contact the Prevention Clinic at Vidant Cancer Care 816-RISK (7475).
Highlighting Your Health is an educational segment courtesy of Vidant Health News. Vidant is a mission-driven, 1,708-bed health system that annually serves a region of more than 1.4 million people in 29 eastern North Carolina counties.