Medical Column: Skin Cancer

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By: Stephen Yarbrough, DO

Did you know our skin is the body’s largest organ? It has many functions, including protection from injury, infection, and ultraviolet radiation from the sun, to name a few. If we do not protect our skin, we can develop skin cancer.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. There are two types of skin cancer: non-melanoma and melanoma. Non-melanoma skin cancer is the most common type and includes basal and squamous cell carcinoma.

What are some signs or symptoms of skin cancer? Non-melanoma skin cancer usually occurs on sun-exposed areas such as the face, neck, arms, hands, or legs and can present in many different ways. Things to look for include a new spot or bump that changes in size, shape, or color; a sore on the skin that will not heal; a crusty patch of skin, especially if it stings, itches, or bleeds easily. This type of skin cancer is rarely life threatening, but can result in significant scarring or defect if not recognized and removed quickly.

Melanomatous skin cancer may look like what we all call a “mole”, but typically has other features. According to American Family Physician (AFP), an easy way to remember these features are “ABCDE”, Asymmetry (one half looks different than the other), Border (the border is irregular), Color (the mole has different colors), Diameter (larger than a pencil eraser), Evolving (the mole is changing in size, shape, or color). This type of skin cancer is potentially life threatening, so prompt evaluation of a mole with “ABCDE” features is critical!

Who is at risk? You may be at risk if you are older than 60, have fair skin, red or blond hair, or have light colored eyes. Other risk factors include a large amount of sun exposure such as working or playing outside and tanning bed use. Previous skin cancer or a family history of skin cancer increases your risk also.

Can I decrease my risk? While there is no way to undo the sun exposure you have already had, you can still do a few things to help prevent skin cancer. Such things include limiting your sun exposure especially during the middle of the day, wearing sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, wearing large brim hats, long sleeves, pants, and avoiding use of tanning beds.

What is next? If you have any abnormal appearing skin lesions you should let your doctor know. They will evaluate any skin lesions and determine if there is concern. The doctor may take a skin biopsy of the lesion for further evaluation. If it is determined to be skin cancer, your doctor will discuss treatment options with you.

So next time you walk outside, make sure you put on sunscreen to protect your skin so it can continue protecting you every day.