Skin Cancer: What You Should Know

Our skin is the largest organ in our human body. It provides the critical functions of controlling body temperature and protecting us from bacteria and viruses. Yet it’s also subject to any number of diseases and conditions, such as acne, rosacea, or psoriasis.
Cancer, however, remains among the most serious and prevalent among them.

Skin cancer, in fact, is the most common cancer in the U.S., with more than 8,500 patients diagnosed with the condition every day, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). So, as summer approaches and people desire to spend more time outdoors, here’s a reminder about skin cancer and the important steps you can take to prevent it.

The three major types of skin cancer are basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma. Approximately 3.5 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer — named for the cells of the skin in which the cancer begins — are diagnosed every year. These types tend to grow slowly and are usually curable if found and treated early.

Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer, and its incidence has been rising for 30 years. The ACS estimates that more than 75,000 cases of melanoma will be diagnosed this year. The good news is that, when found early, melanoma can be cured. However, unlike most types of basal and squamous cell, melanoma can grow and spread quickly to other parts of the body, making it harder to treat. As a result, this form causes most of the deaths from skin cancer — about 10,000 every year.

The major risk factor for most skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays. The danger occurs from both natural UV rays — those from the sun — and artificial UV rays, those from tanning beds. The risk from tanning beds can be particularly perilous for teenagers: it can increase the risk of cancer later in life by 75{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}. The risk from tanning beds has been deemed so great in Massachusetts, in fact, that anyone under the age of 18 is now prohibited by law from patronizing tanning salons (see related story, page 11).

A person’s risk factors for skin diseases are varied, including family history, the amount of outdoor exposure we get, the occupation we have, and how we treat our skin. The type of skin one has, in fact, will determine a lot of the skin conditions a person will face in their lifetime. People are born with different skin colors, and with different levels of pigment in their skin. People with less pigment in their skin, for example, have a higher risk of skin cancer than those with more pigment.

So, as people spend more time outdoors, it’s important to focus on prevention. This is particularly true for those whose occupation, such as roofing or landscaping, or those with a desire for leisure activities, like golfing, tennis, or boating, keep them outside for extended periods. Here are some preventive steps to take.

• Wear a sunblock with a SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30. Read the instructions for use carefully, as multiple applications are usually called for every few hours.

• Wear protective clothing such as a hat and shirt with long sleeves. The more your skin is covered, the better protection you have. Seek shade.

• Recognize that the sun is the strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and limit exposure between these hours.

• Perform a skin check regularly, looking for changes in skin coloration or changes in the appearance of moles. If something looks different, or you’re not sure, check with your physician. The American Cancer Society recommends a complete skin check every year for people over 50.

As dermatologists, our advice is not to try to change your skin artificially. We do not consider a tan to be a healthy-looking aspect of someone’s skin. Finally, remember that the skin is an organ you can actually see. It’s not like hypertension or heart disease where it’s hidden. If you see something on your skin that looks different, or if it worries you, or if you’re not sure, check it with your physician, who may refer you to a dermatologist.

For more information on skin cancer and other skin ailments, visit the American Academy of Dermatology at www.aad.org/public. For a video presentation, visit www.physicianfocus.org/skindisease.

Dr. Ira Skolnik, a physician at Family Dermatology in Concord, is president of the Mass. Academy of Dermatology, and Dr. Pamela Weinfeld, a physician at Dermatology and Skin Care Associates in Wellesley, is vice president of the academy. This article is a public service of the Mass. Medical Society.