Skin cancer – Are you at risk?
“Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States” (CDC). Cancer occurs when cells are growing much more rapidly than they should be. Exposure to ultraviolet lights, either from the sun or artificial sources, causes skin cancer and is something that can be prevented.
When the skin is exposed to ultraviolet light, the melanocytes are “turned on” and change begins to take place in the cells. Their activation causes inflammation characterized by redness and heat, which can later show as a “tan” on some skins types. Therefore, melanocyte cells produce melanin and give us the pigment (color) in our skin. Some lighter skin types are not capable of creating a lot of melanin and tend to simply burn. The Fitzpatrick Scale “measures two components (genetic disposition and reaction to sun exposure). Types range from the very fair (Type I) to the very dark (Type VI)” (Skin Cancer Foundation). This test numerical testing system is known as skin typing. Skin typing results show a person’s skin sensitivity and consequences to inflammation. Skin Type I is the most at risk for developing skin cancer.
Symptoms of skin cancer include a change in your skin, a sore that won’t heal, or a new mole. The A-B-C-D-Es of melanoma is a diagnostic checklist used to determine if the area of the skin is of concern.
- ‘ “A” stands for asymmetrical. Does the mole or spot have an irregular shape with two parts that look very different?
- “B” stands for border. Is the border irregular or jagged?
- “C” is for color. Is the color uneven?
- “D” is for diameter. Is the mole or spot larger than the size of a pea?
- “E” is for evolving. Has the mole or spot changed during the past few weeks or months?’ (CDC).
By protecting your skin with quality sunscreen, the activated melanocyte reaction within the skin does not begin, therefore, preventing rapid cell growth due to ultraviolet exposure. Sunscreen is the best prevention and is therefore the primary prevention for skin cancer. Other primary preventions include avoiding tanning beds, staying in the shade, wearing clothing that covers arms and legs, and wearing a hat and sunglasses.
Risks factors for developing skin cancer include having a low Fitzpatrick rating, history of skin cancer, exposure to ultraviolet light, and genetics. Being screened by a dermatologist is a secondary prevention. Early detection by a doctor and monthly self-exams will help to catch changing skin early so that treatment can be effective.
Tertiary prevention of skin cancer typically occurs immediately after diagnosis. Depending on the type of melanoma, one treatment includes biopsy of the mole and an area around it, which is sent to the lab to make sure all the edges come back clear of abnormal cells. If they do not, the biopsy is performed again until the borders come back clear. In a large majority of patients, tertiary prevention is treatment for actenic keratosis. In these cases, you will see many tiny lesions on the forehead and a very strong prescription medication is applied for several weeks. This medication intensely forces skin cells to the surface, drying the lesions up, and then sloughing the dead lesions off. This treatment is common but is considered to have a high morbidity rate as the sloughing process is very noticeable and the patient must avoid any sun exposure whatsoever during that time. Depending on the type of skin cancer noted and where it is growing on the body, treatments can vary greatly. Early detection means early treatment which is usually successful.
The CDC reports that in 2010 “61,061 people in the United States were diagnosed with melanomas of the skin, including 35,248 men and 25,813 women while 9,154 people in the United States died from melanomas of the skin, including 6,002 men and 3,152 women” (CDC). In 2009, Colorado reported 1,260 residents as having been newly diagnosed with skin cancer. “In the U.S., medical costs to treat skin cancer are estimated at almost $2 billion annually” (EPA).
CDC. Skin cancer. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/basic_info/
Skin Cancer Foundation website. Where Does Your Skin Fit In? Retrieved from
EPA. Retrieved from http://www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/documents/co_facts_web.pdf