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Skin Cancer

Outsmarting Skin Cancer

Your skin is the body's first line of defense to the world around you. From infection to heat, the skin is responsible for keeping your body protected. But, skin also requires its own protection. There are multiple conditions, including cancer, that threaten the wellbeing of your skin each day. However, through simple screenings and lifestyle changes you can look out for not only your skin but for your life, too.

One in five Americans will develop skin cancer during the course of their lifetime, and this risk increases as the body ages. In fact, 40 to 50 percent of people over the age of 65 will be diagnosed with at least one type of skin cancer. As we age, the amount of damage from ultraviolet (UV) radiation absorbed by the body accumulates. UV radiation is part of the energy released by the sun and artificial sources such as tanning beds. There is a strong relationship between skin cancer and accumulated UV exposure. As a result, most skin cancers appear after the age of 50. Although skin cancers are occurring in younger and younger patients, melanoma is the most common form of cancer in young adults age 25 to 30 years old. Limiting your exposure to UV rays is a powerful step towards avoiding skin cancer and achieving healthier skin.

The skin is the body's largest organ, so it deserves to be treated well. There are multiple ways that you can combat skin cancer and keep yourself healthy, not only the summer but all year long.

What is Skin Cancer?

Each year more than 3.5 million skin cancers are diagnosed. The good news is that skin cancer is completely preventable and, if caught early enough, curable.

There are three broad categories of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are the most common types of skin cancer; in fact, two million people are treated for basal cell or squamous cell skin cancer each year. These cancers are highly curable, but they are malignant, meaning that they relentlessly and progressively enlarge, destroying the normal tissues and structures around and below the cancer. Squamous cell skin cancers sometimes spread to other parts of the body; however, it is rare for basal cell cancers to spread. To learn more about skin cancer in general visit the NetWellness Skin Cancer Overview.

Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer because it is the most likely of the trio to spread to other parts of the body (metastasize) and cause death. Whereas early melanoma is usually curable, advanced melanoma has a very poor outcome. It is more common in people with fair skin and can occur on any skin surface. For men, it is most common to find melanoma on the head, neck, or between the shoulders and the hips. On the other hand, women are most likely to experience melanoma on lower legs or between the shoulders and hips. However, it is important to remember that melanoma can occur anywhere on the body including the palms, soles and even eyes. For more information on melanoma, visit the NetWellness exclusive: A Closer Look at Melanoma.

Preventing Skin Cancer

The best way to prevent skin cancer is to avoid the ultraviolet (UV) rays emitted by the sun and artificial sources such as tanning beds and sun lamps. Skin that is not protected by sunscreen or clothing can be damaged by the sun's UV rays in 15 minutes or less. However, it can take the skin 12 hours to show the full, visible effect of the exposure. Clouds will not completely diminish the strength of UV rays. Skin smart ways to prevent skin cancer include:

Screening for Skin Cancer 

It is generally recommended that adults should undergo a full body screening by either a primary physician or a dermatologist at least once a year. During this visit it is important that your dermatologist give your body a full scan in order to look for suspicious spots, freckles or moles. However, if you have a family history of skin cancer, have had skin cancer in the past, are very fair skinned, or have undergone x-ray treatment for acne, seeing the dermatologist once a year may be insufficient. Ask your doctor how frequently you should schedule your visits. It is also crucial to visit your dermatologist if you find a suspicious mark during a self-exam.

Self-exams are one of the best ways to catch skin cancers early. They should be conducted about once a month, and they should be thorough. The best practice is to stand in front of a mirror and examine all areas of skin from head to toe, including underarms, between fingers, between toes and under the finger and toenails. Often, a magnifying glass or another mirror will make the examination easier. A comb is also important to move hair in order to clearly see the skin located on the head. A significant other or family member can help with difficult-to-see areas.

When looking for suspicious areas consult these National Cancer Institute (NCI) guidelines:

If you find an area of concern, take the crucial step of visiting a dermatologist. After all, the first step to outsmarting skin cancer is realizing that you are your body's first line of defense.

For more information:

Go to the Skin Cancer health topic, where you can:

This article is a NetWellness exclusive.

Last Reviewed: Jan 24, 2014

Kevin D Cooper, MD Kevin D Cooper, MD
Professor of Dermatology
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University

Meg R Gerstenblith, MD Meg R Gerstenblith, MD
Assistant Professor of Dermatology
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University