Cancer develops when DNA, the molecule found in cells that encodes genetic information, becomes damaged and the body cannot repair the damage. These damaged cells begin to grow and divide uncontrollably. When this occurs in the skin, skin cancer develops. As the damaged cells multiply, they form a tumor. Since skin cancer generally develops in the epidermis, the outermost layers of skin, a tumor is usually clearly visible. This makes most skin cancers detectable in the early stages. There are three major types of skin cancer:
Basal Cell Carcinoma, Squamous Cell Carcinoma and Melanoma are the most common types of skin cancers. Basal Cell and Squamous Cell sskin cancers are rarely life threatening but can grow and expand to much larger defects requiring surgery. Initially they can appear as a red bump, or may seem like a sore that won’t heal. They can range in size from a few millimeters to a few centimeters in diameter.
Malignant Melanoma is less common but is more agressive and if not treated can become life threatening. It usually appears as a dark brown or black mole with uneven borders and irregular color. These can grow from pre-existing moles or as new moles.
Sun exposure is the leading cause of skin cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, “Many of the more than 1 million skin cancers diagnosed each year could be prevented with protection from the sun’s rays.” Scientists now know that exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays damages DNA in the skin. The body can usually repair this damage before gene mutations occur and cancer develops. When a person’s body cannot repair the damaged DNA, which can occur with cumulative sun exposure, cancer develops.
Skin cancer develops in people of all colors, from the palest to the darkest. However, skin cancer is most likely to occur in those who have fair skin, light-colored eyes, blonde or red hair, a tendency to burn or freckle when exposed to the sun, and a history of sun exposure. Anyone with a family history of skin cancer also has an increased risk of developing skin cancer. In dark-skinned individuals, melanoma most often develops on non-sun-exposed areas, such as the foot, underneath nails, and on the mucous membranes of the mouth, nasal passages, or genitals. Those with fair skin also can have melanoma develop in these areas.
Sun protection can significantly decrease a person’s risk of developing skin cancer. Sun protection practices include staying out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the rays are strongest, applying a broad-spectrum (offers UVA and UVB protection) sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 15 or higher year-round to all exposed skin, and wearing a protective clothing, such as a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses when outdoors. Since skin cancer is so prevalent today, dermatologists also recommend that everyone learn how to recognize the signs of skin cancer, use this knowledge to perform regular examinations of their skin, and see a dermatologist annually (more frequently if at high risk) for an exam. Skin cancer is highly curable with early detection and proper treatment.