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More Than Skin Deep: Know the risks to recognize and prevent skin cancer

by on April 30, 2018 2:55 PM

Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States, with an estimated 3.5 million new cases each year. Most skin cancer is the result of too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or artificial sources.

Over the past 30 years, the incidence of melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – has risen rapidly in the United States, due in large part to increasing use of indoor tanning beds, particularly by young women. In fact, melanoma is now the third most common cancer for women under the age of 50 and the second leading cause of cancer death among women under the age of 35. Early detection is vitally important in preventing the spread of skin cancer to other parts of the body.

Below the surface

Skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells. The three most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. The good news is that most skin cancer cases are basal and squamous cell, which are usually confined to the outer layer of skin – the epidermis – and are easily removed.

Malignant melanoma begins in the pigment-producing cells of the epidermis and can spread quickly to the inner skin layer, the lymph nodes, and other organs. More than 9,000 Americans die each year from melanoma.

Melanoma most often appears as an unusual mole. Most moles are noncancerous, but it’s important to keep an eye out for new or changing moles, especially in areas of the skin that get frequent sun exposure. The ABCDEs of skin cancer are a good reminder of what to consider when evaluating moles:

  • A is for Asymmetry. Imagine a line drawn through the center of a mole. If the two halves look different, the mole is asymmetrical and thus more likely to be malignant. Most normal moles are round or oval and symmetrical.
  • B is for Border. Most normal moles have smooth borders, while the outside border of a melanoma tends to be ragged.
  • C is for Color. A normal mole is usually all one color. A melanoma often contains more than one color or more than one shade of a color.
  • D is for Diameter. Most normal moles are a quarter of an inch or less in diameter, which is about the size of an eraser on the end of a pencil. Larger moles have a greater risk of being malignant.
  • E is for Evolving. Once a person has a normal mole, it usually looks the same from one year to the next. Changes in a mole’s size, shape, or color could indicate malignancy, as can bleeding or itching.

If the ABCDEs indicate a suspicious mole, see a dermatologist or primary care physician to have it checked. Anyone who has a large number of moles can use a printed mole map (available from the American Academy of Dermatology at aad.org) or a mole map smartphone app to keep track of ABCDEs that might require evaluation by a doctor.

Play it safe

Skin damage due to sun exposure or tanning beds is cumulative over a person’s lifetime. It cannot be undone. That’s why it’s important to focus on ways to protect the skin from UV rays now and in the future:

  • Do not use indoor tanning beds. Even minor use increases an individual’s risk of skin cancer. In fact, the World Health Organization has classified indoor tanning devices as carcinogenic to humans.
  • Avoid exposure to the sun’s rays when they are strongest – between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Even on cloudy days, the sun still causes skin damage.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and sunglasses when outdoor activity can’t be avoided during peak sun hours.
  • Use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher on all exposed skin.
  • Seek out shade, such as an umbrella at the beach or seats under a ballpark overhang.
  • Do not lay out in the sun. Every “beautiful” tan increases a person’s risk of skin cancer and leads to premature aging of the skin.

By minimizing exposure to ultraviolet rays and consulting a doctor about any suspicious changes to moles, most people can enjoy warm-weather outdoor activities while minimizing their risk of invasive skin cancer for years to come.

David Shupp, MD, is a dermatologist with Penn State Medical Group, 32 Colonnade Way, State College, (814) 272-4445.

 

 

 

 

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