Skin Cancer Facts and Prevention

Smiling Family that is Cancer Free

Skin cancer is the most common cancer. More than 2 million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer each year. However, with early detection and treatment, skin cancer is highly curable. It is therefore important not to ignore potential warning signs.

The most common warning signs of skin cancer include changes in size, shape, or color of a mole or other skin lesion; or the appearance of a new growth on the skin.

High Cancer Risks

No matter your skin color, you can get skin cancer. Some people have a higher risk of developing skin cancer than others. Age is a key risk factor, but there are many other risk factors:

  • Light colored skin
  • Skin that burns or freckles rather than tans
  • Blond or red hair
  • Blue or green eyes
  • More than 50 moles
  • Irregularly-shaped or darker moles (nevi) called "atypical" or "dysplastic"
  • Used (or use) indoor tanning devices such as tanning beds and sunlamps

Your medical history also can increase your risk of getting skin cancer. You have a much greater risk of developing skin cancer is you have:

  • History of sunburns, especially blistering sunburns
  • Received an organ transplant
  • Had skin cancer (or a blood relative has/had skin cancer)
  • A weakened immune system
  • Received long term x-ray therapy, such as x-ray treatments for acne
  • Been exposed to cancer-causing compounds such as arsenic or coal
  • An area of skin that has been badly burned, either in an accident or by the sun
Types of Skin Cancer

The most common types of skin cancer are:

Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC)
Basal Cell Carcinoma BCC is the most common type of skin cancer. BCC appears on the skin in many shapes and sizes. You may see a dome-shaped growth with visible blood vessels; a shiny, pinkish patch; or a sore that heals, and then returns. BCC usually develops on skin that receives lots of sun, such as the scalp, nose, neck and hands. BCC rarely spreads to other areas of the body, but it can grow deep into tissue and bone.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)
Squamous Cell Carcinoma SCC is the second most common type of skin cancer. SCC appears on the skin in many shapes. You may see a crusted or rough bump; a red, rough flat patch; a dome-shaped bump that grows and bleeds; or a sore that does not heal, or heals and returns. SCC commonly develops on skin that is exposed to sun, such as the face, ears, lips, back of the hands, arms, and legs.

SCC also can develop on areas of the body that are not exposed to sun, such as inside the mouth or on the genitals. Smoking or chewing tobacco may increase the risk of getting SCC in the mouth or throat. Left untreated, SCC can spread to other parts of the body, making treatment difficult.

Melanoma This is the deadliest form of skin cancer. Melanoma may develop on normal skin or in an existing mole. A change to the shape, color, or diameter (size) of a mole can be a sign of melanoma. Other changes to watch for include a mole that becomes painful or begins to bleed or itch. Some melanomas develop on normal skin. A new growth, particularly one that does not match your other moles, could become melanoma.

Melanoma also can develop under finger nails or toenails. This will look like a brown or black streak underneath the nail. Although melanoma is more common in those with light colored skin, people with skin of color also get melanoma. In skin of color, melanoma usually appears on a palms of the hands, soles of the feet, under a nail, in the mouth, or on the genitals.

Actinic Keratoses (AK)
Actinic Keratoses Actinic Keratoses (AKs) are common skin growths. AKs are considered precancerous. Left untreated, an AK may turn into squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Most AKs are dry, scaly, rough-textured spots on the skin. AKs form on skin that receives lots of sun, such as on the head, including the lips and scalp; arms; and hands. Women frequently get AKs on the backs of their legs. AKs can form, disappear, and then return.

Skin Cancer images are courtesy of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Skin Cancer Prevention

Sun exposure is the most preventable risk factor for all skin cancers, including melanoma. The following can help you detect and prevent new skin cancers:

Keep all appointments with your dermatologist.
When found early, skin cancer can often be cured. Even melanoma has a cure rate of nearly 100% when found early and treated.

Perform skin self-examinations.
Examine your skin as often as your dermatologist recommends. Be sure to check your scalp, ears, genitals, and buttocks. If you notice anything changing, growing, or bleeding on your skin, immediately make an appointment to see your dermatologist.

Protect your skin every day by:

Seeking Shade
Shade helps protect your skin from the sun's harmful UV rays. Shade is especially important between 10am and 2pm when the sun's rays are strongest. But anytime your shadow is shorter than you are, seek shade.

Protecting your skin when around water, snow, and sand.
These reflect and intensify the damaging rays of the sun.

Wearing protective clothing.
This means wearing a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses when possible.

Be Generous With the Sunscreen
Generously applying sunscreen that offers broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB) protection, water resistance, and a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or more. Wearing sunscreen every day, studies show, can reduce the risk of developing melanoma by half. Be sure to apply the suncreen every day before going outside. Apply enough sunscreen to all skin that clothing will not cover. You should reapply sunscreen every two hours, even on cloudy days. After swimming or sweating, you also need to reapply sunscreen.

Protecting your family and friends.
Make sure children are protected from excessive sun exposure.

Never Use a Tanning Bed.
UV light from the sun and tanning beds can cause skin cancer and wrinkling. If you want to look tan, consider using a self-tanning product or spray. Even when using one of these products, you need to use sunscreen.