Physicians diagnose about 1.3 million Americans with skin cancer each year (“Melanoma” 1). Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. The most dangerous type of skin cancer is malignant melanoma. Melanomas metastasize or spread throughout the body at a very early stage. Very few people think about these statistics when they bask for long periods of time in the sun. Yet chronic exposure to the sun causes 95% of all basal cell carcinomas and represents the most important risk factor for causing melanoma (“Basal Cell Carcinoma” 1; “Melanoma” 2). Skin cancer, a dangerous but preventable disease, has an excellent outcome when detected and treated early.
What happens if Skin Cancer is left untreated?
Left untreated, skin cancer becomes potentially deadly and disfiguring. People often worry about melanoma because this type of skin cancer is known to spread to other parts of the body and cause death. Less common than basal cell carcinoma and far more dangerous, melanoma becomes difficult to treat when not found soon enough (“Melanoma” 2). Doctors will diagnose about 47,700 people with melanoma this year and about 7,700 will die from it (“Melanoma” 2). Basal cell carcinoma affects over 800,000 Americans each year (“About Basal Cell Carcinoma” 1). This common cancer rarely metastasizes but left unattended, it may cause severe damage to surrounding skin and a possible loss of an “eye, ear, or nose” (“Basal Cell Carcinoma” 4). Fortunately, malignant melanoma and basal cell carcinoma can be treated and cured when caught early.
Skin Cancer Warning Signs
Specific warning signs help to identify potential skin cancers. Most people know that they should seek medical care if they have a mole that changes in size or a sore that fails to heal. The American Cancer Society promotes The ABCD rule to help people remember the important signs of melanoma and other skin cancers (“Melanoma” 4). These letters stand for asymmetry, border irregularity, color, and diameter. Any mole or growth that has an uneven or notched border, multiple colors or is larger than the diameter of a pencil eraser should cause a trip to a qualified physician (“Melanoma” 4). For melanoma, “The cornerstone of successful treatment~Eis early diagnosis and prompt appropriate surgical therapy” (MacKie 200). Rona MacKie, MD says that patients who have melanomas removed when they are less than 1.5 mm thick have over a 90% chance of being disease free over a five-year period (201). The American Cancer Society recommends that people check their skin monthly for abnormalities (“Melanoma” 6). Any unusual changes should be immediately reported to a physician.
Physicians effectively treat skin cancer in a variety of ways. For example, laser surgery provides a high tech solution for the removal of basal cell carcinomas. The laser employs the energy of light to vaporize and seal the lesion with the extra benefit of not causing damage to surrounding tissue. Laser treatment is done in the comfort of the doctor’s office, does not require stitches and has excellent cosmetic results. Surgical excision of a growth with a scalpel is the standard method for removing melanomas. A surgeon cuts out the entire growth and additional normal skin around it to ensure complete removal of all cancer cells. Dermatologists frequently freeze and destroy small basal cell carcinomas with liquid nitrogen. This method avoids the cutting and stitching of skin but may result in a scar. Mohs surgery involves excising thin layers of a skin cancer while carefully checking each layer under a microscope until the site is tumor free (“Basal Cell Carcinoma” 4). Skin care specialists tout Mohs Surgery because it saves healthy skin and has a high cure rate. The good news is that these methods of treatment effectively cure skin cancer, but knowing how to prevent skin cancer is the best news of all.
Preventing Skin Cancer
You can protect yourself and your family from skin cancer with just a few common sense tips. Sun exposure remains the most significant factor for all types of skin cancer. A person reduces the incidence of skin cancer just by limiting time in the sun; especially during the hours of 10:00 a.m. to 4 p.m. when the sun is strongest. Cover exposed areas of skin with a sunscreen that has an SPF of 15 or higher (“Melanoma” 6). Remember to re-apply sunscreen after exercising and swimming. Wear a hat to shield the face when golfing, boating or working in the garden. Avoid tanning booths for the same reason that you protect yourself from the sun. Explain the danger of frequent sunburns and sun exposure to your children. All of these suggestions should help you gain a measure of control over the future health of your skin.
Skin cancer is hereditary
Skin cancer is serious business. Anyone with a history of chronic sun exposure runs the risk of developing it. The incidence of melanoma has doubled each of the last three decades, growing “faster than any other malignancy except lung cancer in women” (MacKie 182). People with fair skin, light hair, and blue, green or gray eyes have the greatest risk of developing the disease (“About Basal Cell Carcinoma” 1). Those who take appropriate measures to protect their skin avoid “almost all basal cell carcinomas, which occur most frequently on exposed parts of the body-the face, ears, neck, scalp, shoulders and back” (“About Basal Cell Carcinoma” 1). Remember, skin cancer surveillance and early detection may save your life.
- “About Basal Cell Carcinoma.” The Skin Cancer Foundation 14 March 2004
- Basal Cell Carcinoma. New York: The Skin Cancer Foundation, 1992.
- MacKie, Rona M. Skin Cancer. 2nd ed. London, UK: Martin Dunitz Ltd, 1996
- Why You Should Know About Melanoma. New York: American Cancer Soc., 2000
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