Keeping Skin Cancer at Bay
There are many measures you can take to protect yourself from
When John R.'s wife first noticed a "funny" patch of skin on his scalp, he and his wife did not think much of it. But after seeing photos of skin cancer in a women's magazine, she took another look.
"She handed me the phone and forced me to call the doctor right then," recalls John, 45. It is a good thing she was so insistent. That patch turned out to be
basal cell carcinoma
, a rarely fatal, but very common type of skin cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), skin cancer is the most common type of cancer. In the US, over two million people are diagnosed each year with skin cancer, most commonly basal cell or
squamous cell carcinoma
. Another type is called
, which a rarer, but more deadly form of skin cancer.
How Aging Influences Skin Cancer Risk
Skin cancer is a particular concern for older adults, who often live in sunny areas and experience more sun exposure. Retired people also have more leisure time to spend on outdoor activities such as golf, gardening, or boating.
Men are also more likely to develop skin cancer because they are more likely to have worked and played outside than their female counterparts. The skin cancers we see today are often due to the sun exposure of many years ago.
Basal and squamous cell cancer tend to result from years of prolonged exposure to the sun. Melanoma, on the other hand, can be found in both sun-exposed and non-exposed tissue. In rare cases, it can form in the eyes or mouth. But, more commonly, this type of skin cancer affects the chest and back in men and the legs in women. Unlike basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, melanoma is much more likely to spread to other parts of the body. That is why it is so important to detect this type of skin cancer early.
Because skin cancer, like all cancers, takes a long time to develop from the single mutated cell to the full-blown visible change we can actually see, skin cancer is a disease most often seen in older adults. Skin cancer seen in children is particularly worrisome because it may indicate that a genetic defect predisposes them to all types of cancers.
may be the most frightening variation of the disease, the majority of skin cancers are found to be either basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma. Both of these types affect older people at higher rates, and both have excellent survival rates if an early diagnosis is made and treatment is started early.
After being diagnosed, patients are typically referred to a dermatologist who will remove the lesion, send it to a lab for testing, and recommend a treatment plan.
During his initial visit, John's dermatologist examined his whole body, surgically removed the patch on his head using local anesthesia, and used liquid nitrogen to treat several other pre-cancerous areas on his scalp, face, and chest. These pre-cancerous lesions may also be treated with certain creams such as 5-fluorouracil
After the lab biopsy confirmed that John had basal cell carcinoma and that the entire lesion had been removed, his dermatologist asked him to return in six months.
Surgical removal is the common approach for skin cancer, and it is most often handled on an outpatient basis by a dermatologist or a surgeon. But larger lesions or those found to be melanoma may require additional treatment. Melanoma, for example, may be treated with
, other drug therapies,
Skin cancers around particularly sensitive structures—the fold of the nose, the eyelid, the corner of the mouth, and the lining of the ear—can lead to a poor cosmetic outcome if removed by surgery. Radiation therapy, in experienced hands, can be as successful as surgery in preventing the tumor from returning while sparing the removal of tissue and the inevitable scarring that occurs.
Although skin cancer is rarely fatal, even the nonfatal forms can result in pain and scarring. They also often occur on the face, the last place on the body you want to have a large—or small—area of skin removed. That is why it is so important to practice preventive measures.
The ACS recommends the following steps to prevent skin cancer:
- Wear clothes, like long-sleeved shirts and long pants, that will protect you from the sun. Some companies even design clothes that have a high sun protection factor.
- Wear a hat that has a 2-3 inch brim.
- Wear wrap-around sunglasses that block ultraviolet rays (UVA and UVB).
- Use sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more. Follow the directions for applying the product. It may need to be reapplied every two hours. Also, use a lip balm that protects you from the sun.
- Avoid outdoor activities between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm, when the sun is strongest.
- Do not go to tanning salons or use sunlamps to darken your skin.
You can also take a proactive role by checking your skin for any changes. If you notice that a spot looks different in any way (eg, size, shape, or color), call your doctor for an evaluation.
American Cancer Society
The Skin Cancer Foundation
BC Cancer Agency
Canadian Cancer Society
Basal Cell Carcinoma of the Skin. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what. Updated November 27, 2012. Accessed December 17, 2012.
Melanoma. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what. Updated February 16, 2012. Accessed December 17, 2012.
Melanoma Skin Cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/003120-pdf.pdf. Updated September 20, 2012. Accessed December 17, 2012.
Skin Cancer: Basal and Squamous Cell. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/003139-pdf.pdf. Updated September 20, 2012. Accessed December 17, 2012.