Terrence Steyer, M.D.
Chair, Department of Family Medicine
Ten Questions and Answers on What You Need to Know About Skin Cancer
In the United States today there is a growing epidemic of skin cancer with approximately 1,000, 000 new cases diagnosed each year. Skin cancer is the result of overexposure of the unprotected skin to the invisible, ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun.
WHO IS AT RISK?
Those individuals who have light eyes, fair hair (blonds and redheads) and fair complexion and those who sunburn easily are at greater risk of developing skin cancer, but no one is immune.
Skin cancer is directly related to the amount of yearly sunlight in an area and is common in outdoor workers such as farmers and ranchers.
IS RECREATION AND LEISURE A RISK FACTOR?
Yes, an improved life style which permits more leisure hours outdoors along with more relaxed styles of dress increase the risk of skin cancer.
WHICH PARTS OF THE BODY ARE AFFECTED BY SKIN CANCER?
The head, neck, forearms and hands are the most common sites of skin cancer. More than 90% of all skin cancers occur in these locations.
WHAT ARE ACTINIC KERATOSES?
Actinic keratoses indicate that sun-damage to skin has occurred. They may develop into skin cancers if untreated. Located on sun-exposed skin, they are rough, slightly raised patches of skin.
WHAT IS BASAL CELL CARCINOMA?
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer. It begins as a small shiny nodule on exposed areas of the skin, such as the hands, face and neck. If left untreated, there will be repeated episodes of bleeding and crusting.
WHAT IS SQUAMOUS CELL CARCINOMA?
Squamous cell carcinoma is characterized by a red nodule or a patch of scaly or crusted skin on the ears, face or lips. It may also appear on areas of skin usually protected by clothing such as on the abdomen and legs.
WHAT IS MELANOMA?
Melanoma is a malignant tumor and it is on the increase. Fortunately it accounts for less than 4% of all skin cancers. Melanoma begins as a dark, mole-like growth with irregular edges and pigmentation. The dark growth may changes shades to either red, blue or white. It appears most frequently on the upper back of men and women, the torso of men and lower legs of women. It also runs in families.
IS SKIN CANCER CURABLE?
When detected and treated early, basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas have an excellent cure rate. If left untreated, basal cell carcinoma may extend below the skin to the bone and squamous cell carcinoma may spread to other locations on the body. Some forms of melanoma have a good prognosis if detected early, however melanoma accounts for 75% of the 9,000 deaths due to skin cancer each year in the U.S.
IS SKIN CANCER PREVENTABLE?
Skin cancer is a preventable disease which is affecting a growing number of farmers, other outdoor workers and sunbathers. Persons with fair hair and skin should pay special attention to the risk of skin cancer and follow the methods of prevention discussed below.
Warning Signs: See your physician if you notice a new growth, mole or discoloration or a sudden change in an existing mole. Early detection of skin cancer is the first step for a successful cure.
Prevention of Skin Cancer
· Wear protective clothing consisting of long-sleeve shirts and trousers.
· Wear protective hats to shield the head and neck from direct sun exposure. Baseball caps only provide protection to the forehead. Wide brim hats will provide protection to most of the face as well as to the ears and back of the neck.
· Use a sunscreen product on unprotected skin. Select a sunscreen with a skin protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 which is also water resistant to avoid dilution from sweat. Apply the sunscreen at least 30 minutes prior to exposure.
· Limit exposure if possible. The sun's rays are more intense between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. If you have a previous history of skin cancer, try to avoid direct exposure to the sun during these times.
· Skin cancer can result from a combination of factors including UV light, heredity, and exposure to solvents and petroleum distillates found in may pesticides. Protective clothing can reduce excess UV exposure and pesticide/organic solvent exposure at the same time.