Each year more than two million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer, making it the most common cancer diagnosis.
Although anyone can get skin cancer, some people are at elevated risk. Important risk factors include:
- Light pigmentation - fair skin, fair hair, and fair eyes.
- Having a large number of moles – particularly atypical appearing moles.
- The use of tanning beds.
- Working outdoors or having outdoor hobbies like fishing, boating, golf, running, cycling, or mountaineering.
- Having a history of sunburns – particularly blistering burns.
- Having a weakened immune system as in the case of organ transplant recipients, cancer patients, or HIV patients.
- Having had skin cancer previously or having a close relative with skin cancer.
- Exposure to high doses of X-rays for radiation therapy.
- Children are especially at risk from ultraviolet rays.
Fortunately, with early detection the majority of skin cancer is highly treatable and even curable.
We know that ultraviolet light (from the sun and/or tanning beds) plays a crucial role in the development of most skin cancers, giving rise to simple strategies to reduce the risk of developing skin cancer.
The people at highest risk for skin cancer must take the greatest precautions with regard to ultraviolet exposure to reduce their skin cancer risk. They should also pay close attention to changes in their skin. Some helpful measures include:
- Wear sun-protective clothing – broad brimmed hats, long-sleeve shirts, and long pants,
- Avoid intentional tanning (indoors or out),
- Apply (and re-apply) a well-formulated SPF 45 sunscreen, and
- Avoid the outdoors when ultraviolet light is most intense (about 11am to 3pm).
- Check your skin in a mirror at home.
- Become familiar with your normal spots.
- Enlist the help of family for monitoring your skin.
- Be on the lookout for changing moles (enlarging, color change, bleeding, itching), and red spots or sores that stick around and never seem to heal.
Skin cancer mainly involves parts of the body that get the most ultraviolet light (bald scalp, ears, temples, cheeks, forehead, nose, lower eyelids, lower lip, upper back, upper chest, arms and legs) so pay careful attention to these. However, skin cancer may arise anywhere on the skin, even (rarely) on the palms, soles, or genitals.
The three most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and malignant melanoma (MM). Of these three, BCC is most common and MM is most serious if diagnosed at a late stage. No matter the type of skin cancer, protection of the skin from ultraviolet light reduces incidence and early detection improves outcomes.
Ultimately, if you have a spot that concerns you for skin cancer, please have it evaluated by your physician.