What You Should Know About Skin Cancer

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Who gets skin cancer, and why?

Sun exposure is the biggest cause of skin cancer, but some cancers develop on skin not ordinarily exposed to sunlight. Exposure to environmental hazards, radiation treatment, and even heredity may play a role. Although skin cancer affects people of all colors and races, the risk is greatest for people who have fair skin, a large number of moles, a family history of skin cancer, a history of excessive sun exposure or blistering sunburns, or received radiation treatments.

What are the types of skin cancer?

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common type of skin cancer, followed by squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). They usually develop in people who have fair skin, but can occur in any skin color. They develop after years of sun exposure or tanning and tend to form on areas that are frequently exposed to the sun, such as the face, neck, ears, hands, arms, chest and back. These carcinomas can appear as a firm red bump, scaly pink patch, or a sore that doesn’t heal.  Both BCC and SCC can invade into the skin and cause disfigurement. BCC rarely metastasizes or spreads, while the risk is slightly higher for SCC.  Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent further damage and stop them from spreading to other areas of the body.

The most dangerous and deadliest form of skin cancer is melanoma.  It frequently develops in a pre-existing mole or appears as a new dark spot on the skin.  Melanoma is caused mainly by intense, occasional ultraviolet light exposure, which frequently leads to sunburn.  It occurs especially in those who are genetically predisposed to the disease.  If melanoma is detected and treated early, it is almost always curable.  If not, the cancer can advance and spread to other parts of the body, where it becomes hard to treat and can be fatal.  Knowing the ABCDE warning signs (Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter, Evolving) of melanoma can help you find an early melanoma.  Consult a doctor if a mole is asymmetrical; has irregular edges; is more than one color; is wider than a pencil eraser; changes with regard to size, shape or color; or if the mole itches, oozes or bleeds.

How do I prevent skin cancer?

» Seek the shade, especially between 10 am and 4 pm, when the sun’s rays are strongest.

» Avoid sun-tanning and do not use UV tanning beds, as they are more harmful than the sun.

» Cover up with clothing or, even better, UV-protective clothing. Wear a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.

» While outdoors, use a broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB), water -resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.  Reapply approximately every two hours, or after swimming or sweating. Don’t forget the top of your feet, your neck, your ears and the top of your head.

» Examine your skin head-to-toe every month.

» See your dermatologist every year for a skin exam.

» And remember, if you notice changes to your skin, such as a new growth, a mole changing appearance, or a sore that won’t heal, see a doctor right way.

Dr. Alison Stallings is a dermatologist at Phelps Hospital. She is a member of Advanced Dermatology of Westchester in Tarrytown.


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