Protect your skin and prevent skin cancer

Note: This article is an updated version of the original article that was posted on August 28, 2019.

With summer heating up, more San Antonio families are heading outdoors to soak up the sun. University Health dermatologists want you to remember your sunscreen and protective clothing next time you step outside for a day of fun.

More Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other cancers combined. One in five Americans will develop some type of skin cancer by the age of 70. The good news is that if detected early, most skin cancers are highly treatable and curable.

Types of skin cancer

There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, each day an additional 9,500 people are diagnosed with one of these cancers.

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common. It represents about 80% of all skin cancers. Fortunately, it tends to grow slowly. It also isn’t likely to spread to other parts of the body. If left untreated, it has the potential to get into the bone or tissue below the skin.

Melanomas and squamous cell carcinomas are the most dangerous. Squamous cell carcinoma is often found in areas of the body that are regularly exposed to sunlight. Melanomas can occur anywhere. If left untreated, both cancers can spread to the lymph nodes.

Early detection saves lives

“Early detection and treatment can prevent that from happening,” said Dr. Richard Usatine, a dermatologist at University Health. “When cancer spreads to your lymph nodes or enters your lymphatic system, it can travel to other areas of your body. Once this happens, treatment is more complex and the cancer can be deadly.”

There are many signs and symptoms of basal and squamous cell skin cancers. They can be flat, raised, open sores, wart-like or bumps with numerous colorful characteristics.

Only 1% of all skin cancers are melanoma. The AIM at Melanoma Foundation projected some 207,390 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed by the end of 2021. When a melanoma patient is diagnosed early, there’s a five-year survival rate of 99%.

Look for unusual growths or changes within a mole

“When you see something on your skin that doesn’t look or feel right, take action and get it looked at right away,” Dr. Usatine said.

“Not all skin cancers look unsightly or have dark areas with multiple colors,” Dr. Usatine said. “In reverse, a patient could have a seborrheic keratosis (normal age spot) that forms into a brown or black wart-like spot, but those are harmless.”

It’s important to be examined by a health care provider who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of skin disorders. This is particularly important if you have a family history of skin cancer or risk factors to get skin cancer.

Because skin cancer morphs into so many shapes and textures, the American Cancer Society recommends the ABCDE rule to help people recognize the major features of melanoma. Remember, not all melanomas have these exact characteristics.

  • Asymmetry: Half of a mole does not look the same as the other half.
  • Border: The edges of the growth are irregular, ragged or blurred.
  • Color: The area in question is not consistent and it may include various shades of brown or black, or it could include patches of pink, red, white or blue.
  • Diameter: Most melanomas are larger than a pencil eraser (6mm).
  • Evolving: A mole or growth will change in size, shape or color.

You can get skin cancer at any age

The American Academy of Dermatology indicates the number of people affected by skin cancer has increased over the past 30 years. Caucasian men over 50 have the highest risk of getting melanoma. It’s also the second most common form of cancer in women age 15 to 29.

“The majority of skin damage is caused by exposure to the sun,” Dr. Usatine said. “I encourage my patients to use safety measures to avoid too much sun exposure.”

Additional factors that increase your risk of getting melanoma:

  • Having had skin cancer in the past
  • Having many irregular or large moles
  • Having light skin and hair, red hair, blue or green eyes
  • A parent, brother, sister or child has had melanoma
  • Multiple, early childhood sunburns

Take steps to reduce your risk

  • Minimize exposure to UV rays – avoid the sun, seek shade, wear hats and use sun protective clothing
  • Apply a water-resistant sunscreen on sun-exposed skin every day
  • Don’t use tanning beds or sunlamps
  • See a skin specialist once a year for a thorough exam if you have risk factors for skin cancer
  • Regularly review all surfaces of your skin and note any changes
  • See your doctor immediately if you see something suspicious

We know early detection saves lives. If an area of your skin looks odd, is changing, growing or bleeding, has unusual pain or isn’t healing properly, see a skin expert or dermatologist as soon as possible.

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