May is National Skin Cancer Awareness Month
Every hour, skin cancer claims another life
What is Skin Cancer?
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.
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.” In some cases, skin cancer is an inherited condition. Between 5% and 10% of melanomas develop in people with a family history of melanoma.
Skin Cancer Prevention
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. With early detection and proper treatment, skin cancer is highly curable. The average cure rate when detected and treated in the early stages is 95%. Even melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, when limited to the outermost layers of the skin yields a 95% cure rate.
How Skin Cancer is Diagnosed
Dermatologists detect skin cancer through a visual examination of the skin and mucous membranes. If malignancy (cancer) is suspected, a biopsy will be performed. This involves numbing the area and removing the lesion, or part of it, for microscopic examination. A biopsy is the only way to definitely tell if skin cancer is present. The removed sample is examined under a microscope to determine if cancer cells are present and if so which kind.
If the biopsy reveals skin cancer, your dermatologist will discuss treatment options. Treatment for skin cancer varies according to the type, location, extent, aggressiveness of the cancer, and the patient’s general health. The goals of treatment for skin cancer are to remove all of the cancer, reduce the chance of recurrence, preserve healthy skin tissue, and minimize scarring after surgery.
Accounting for about 4% of all diagnosed skin cancers, melanoma begins in the melanocytes, cells within the epidermis that give skin its color. Melanoma has been coined “the most lethal form of skin cancer” because it can rapidly spread to the lymph system and internal organs. In the United States alone, approximately one person dies from melanoma every hour. Older Caucasian men have the highest mortality rate. Dermatologists believe this is due to the fact that they are less likely to heed the early warning signs. With early detection and proper treatment, the cure rate for melanoma is about 95%. Once its spreads, the prognosis is poor. Melanoma most often develops in a pre-existing mole or looks like a new mole, which is why it is important for people to know what their moles look like and be able to detect changes to existing moles and spot new moles.