May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, reminding us to be safe as we go out into that beautiful spring sunshine. Skin cancer awareness is more than just remembering to use sunscreen and avoiding excessive ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure. Be skin smart and get the facts on detecting and preventing this elusive and potentially deadly disease.
About 3.3 million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer each year. Most cases are slow-growing basal cell and squamous-cell carcinomas, which usually aren’t life-threatening. A small percentage are melanomas, which are often deadly when not caught early. Melanoma can be detected by using the “ABCDE guide” — moles or spots that show asymmetry, irregular border, mixes of color, large diameter or evolving shape or size. Rarer cancers include Merkel cell carcinoma and Kaposi sarcoma, both of which are associated with viral infections. Learn how to detect these horrific diseases and reduce the risk of them developing by using the guide below.
This Is What You Need to Know About Skin Cancer.
Skin Cancer 101
An estimated 3.3 million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer each year, making it the most common type of cancer found in the United States. About 2.6 million of those cases are slow-growing basal cell carcinomas, which can appear as waxy, pink or flesh-colored raised bumps. While they hardly ever metastasize, or travel to other parts of the body, untreated basal cell carcinomas will invade any tissue left in their path, including the bones.
Most cases of skin cancer aren’t deadly but all will continue to grow until they’re removed. In some cases, delayed removal may increase the risk of recurrence or disfigurement. While some forms of skin cancer don’t metastasize, the ones that do can be fast-growing and quick to kill.
It’s estimated that more than 192,000 Americans will develop melanoma this year. About 7,200 of them will die of the disease. If caught before it’s had the chance to spread, melanoma is 100% treatable. Unfortunately, about 36% of cases have already metastasized by the time a doctor sees them.
Early detection is essential to surviving melanoma, so check your body regularly for any changes in your skin. When searching for melanoma, it can be particularly helpful to go by the “ABCDE guide”:
- Asymmetry: The mark or mole is uneven in shape.
- Border: The border appears jagged, blurred or etched.
- Color: The color isn’t uniform, instead presenting with multiple shades or colors, which can range from brown and black to white, pink, red and blue.
- Diameter: It’s usually larger than the diameter of a pencil eraser.
- Evolving: The size, color or shape have changed.
If you notice any of the above signs, or anything else that seems unusual for you, see a dermatologist as soon as possible. Melanoma can metastasize quickly, so don’t wait on anything suspicious.
Other Types of Skin Cancer
About 20% of skin cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. They’re slow to grow, like basal cell carcinomas, and although it’s rare, they do sometimes metastasize. They tend to present as crusty or scab-like lesions, most commonly in areas that get the most sun exposure.
Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare form of skin cancer that begins in the nerve cells responsible for sense of touch. A common virus most people have been exposed to, the Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCV), is present in 80% of cases. Only people with impaired immune systems tend to get this form of cancer, so MCV isn’t considered a threat to most people.
Also virus-related and found primarily in people with low immune function is Kaposi sarcoma (KS). This form of skin cancer begins in the blood vessels or lymph system and presents as purple, red or brown patches on the skin. In the United States, KS occurs most commonly in people with AIDS. In Africa and the Mediterranean, where the Kaposi sarcoma-associated herpesvirus (KSHV) is prevalent, senior populations are also at risk.
How to Protect Yourself
Most types of skin cancer can be traced back to excessive sun exposure or repeated sunburns. People who frequent UV tanning beds are also more likely to develop some form of skin cancer. You can reduce your risks by avoiding being out in the sun when the UV index is at its worst, generally between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.
Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen — SPF 15 on most days, or SPF 30 if you plan on being out for an extended period. If you’re at risk for a virus-related skin cancer, do what you can to keep your immune system in its best possible shape. Examine your body every month, head to toe, and use a body map to track any changes.
Skin cancer may be common, but early detection and treatment can help you continue to enjoy that beautiful sunshine without missing a step. Take the precautions, check yourself regularly and see your doctor if you notice anything that doesn’t look quite right. Go ahead and enjoy the great outdoors — but be safe about it!
~Here’s to Your Healthy Ascension!
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