As spring turns to summer, we’re replacing our sweaters and jeans with t-shirts and shorts, exposing more of our skin to the damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun. These rays can increase our risk of skin cancer, the most common cancer in the United States with an estimated 9,500 people being diagnosed every single day. This is why it’s so important to know its signs and symptoms. Diagnosing skin cancer early can dramatically increase your chances of a full recovery in most cases.
There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Actinic keratosis is a type of pre-cancer and looks like a dry, raised, scaly bump on your skin in areas that have often had years of sun exposure such as face, ears, lips, scalps, and backs of hands. Basal cell carcinoma often looks like a flesh-colored, waxy or pearl-like bump or pinkish patch of skin that sometimes has a central ulcer. These tend to occur in areas with a lot of sun exposure, too, most commonly on the face and neck. Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of cancer. It looks like a firm bump, scaly patch or a sore that tries to heal and then reopens. It often affects sun-exposed skin including the head, neck, chest, upper back, ears, lips, arms, legs, and hands.
Melanomas are like moles, except they have unusual shapes and color. Typically, moles that are suspicious for melanoma are asymmetrical; do not have a smooth, even border; are irregularly colored; are bigger than a pea, and/or they change over time. (Visit https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/skin-cancer/multimedia/melanoma/sls-20076095 for more information.)
Non-melanoma skin cancers usually do not spread and can be treated with minor surgery or topical treatment. Melanoma, on the other hand, can metastasize (spread through the lymph system or bloodstream) to affect other parts of the body. While melanoma only accounts for about 2 percent of all skin cancers, it is responsible for most skin cancer deaths.
Although anyone can get skin cancer, some people are more susceptible than others. Those with lighter natural skin or hair color, blue or green eyes, or skin that freckles or burns easily are at higher risk, as are those with a family history of skin cancer. Even if you don’t have these risk factors, limiting your exposure to UV radiation via the sun and avoiding tanning beds will decrease your overall risk of skin cancer.
Limiting time outdoors in direct sunlight is clearly the most effective way to protect your skin, but that’s not always practical. I usually tell my patients to avoid being outside during peak hours (midday), wear protective clothing including a hat and sunglasses, and use broad-spectrum sunscreen. If you’re in and out of water, be sure to reapply the sunscreen more frequently.
Given that 20 percent of Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime, it’s a good idea to limit your exposure to UV radiation as much as possible and to check your skin regularly for signs of cancer.
Dr. Jerry Douglas is the chief medical officer at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.