Written by Michele Wheat
The abnormal or out-of-control growth of skin cells is a type of cancer known as skin cancer. In the United States, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer. The most recent statistics tracking melanomas, which are one of three main forms of skin cancer in the U.S., state that there were 71,943 people diagnosed with the disease in 2013. In that same year, more than 9,000 people died as a result of the condition. In terms of non-melanoma cancers, it is estimated that more than 5.4 million cases are treated annually in the U.S. alone. While the risk and severity associated with skin cancer varies, it is important that it is first diagnosed as early as possible. Because skin cancer in general is so prevalent, it is important for people to understand what it is and what can be done to prevent it.
Types of Skin Cancer
There are three main types of skin cancer that can affect both men and women. The most common type of skin cancer is also the least dangerous. Because it develops in the basal cells in the deepest part of the epidermis, it is called basal cell carcinoma. The second most common skin cancer forms in squamous cells located in the outer layer of the epidermis. This type of cancer may spread to one's lymph nodes and has the potential to be life-threatening if undetected or untreated. The third type of skin cancer is the least common but the most deadly of the three. It forms in the melanin-producing cells called melanocytes. This type of cancer can begin as or appear to be a mole. It has a high potential of spreading to other parts of the body and can be life-threatening if it does not receive early treatment. Other types of skin cancer are less common than the main three. They include cutaneous lymphoma, Kaposi sarcoma, Merkel cell carcinoma, and skin adnexal tumors.
Skin Cancer Risks
There are certain things that put people at higher risk for developing skin cancer. It is important to understand what these risks are, as it may be possible to reduce some of them. Extreme or excessive amounts of exposure to the sun is a common risk factor, particularly if a person had more than one sunburn with blisters as a child or teenager. People with pale skin, freckles, light eyes, or blond or red hair all have a greater chance of developing skin cancer than individuals with darker skin tones. A family history of skin cancer also increases one's risk of developing the disease. In addition, a person who has already had skin cancer has a higher chance of getting it again. A weakened immune system is also considered a risk for skin cancer, particularly melanomas. Medications taken for an organ transplant can cause a weakened immune system, as can HIV or AIDS. The same is true for having a large number of moles and abnormal moles.
Ways to Prevent Skin Cancer
In many cases, people can lower their chances of developing skin cancer by taking precautionary steps throughout their life. Because the sun and UV rays are common risk factors, a crucial protective measure is to avoid overexposure to the sun. To do this, people should wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen when outdoors. A protective sunscreen should have an SPF of 15 or greater, and it should be applied generously over any area of bare or exposed skin. In addition to sunscreen, clothing is also a preventive measure. In general, sun-safe or protective clothing is made using tightly woven material that doesn't easily allow UV rays through to the skin beneath. It is also typically darker in color, as darker or vivid colors typically absorb more UV rays. Sun-safe clothing is worn to cover one's legs, arms, and head. Protective hats will have a broad brim to protect the face and neck from harmful rays. Another important way to protect oneself from the sun is to avoid outdoor activities during the part of the day when the harmful rays from the sun are strongest. Typically, this is between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., regardless of whether it is a cloudy or clear day. If spending time outdoors during this time period, stay in shaded spots such as under umbrellas or trees or in other areas with overhead covering.
Tanning beds, booths, or salons are all sources of UV radiation and as a result should be avoided. Instead of these methods, self-tanning products provide a UV-free way to obtain a tan appearance. While checking one's skin does not prevent cancer, it can help detect potential early signs of the disease such as changes in moles or spots or sores that are taking longer than four weeks to heal. In the event of changes, bleeding, or growths, contact a dermatologist or physician.