May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and at Advanced Dermatology & Skin Surgery, we take this opportunity to highlight a significant health issue that many of us still have questions on. We realize that keeping our patients informed is critically important in making sound health decisions. Why Skin Cancer Awareness month? Skin cancer is the number one cancer in the United States and worldwide. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more than 5 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year, amounting to more skin cancers being diagnosed in the US every year than all cancers combined. It is estimated that 1 in 5 people will get skin cancer by the age of 70. One thing we can learn this month is that skin cancer is one of the most preventable cancers, and when detected early, it can be treated successfully. Our very own Chadd Sukut, M.D., answers your top skin cancer questions.
What is Skin Cancer?
Cancer is uncontrolled cell growth. Skin cancer occurs when skin cells, often damaged by the sun, begin to grow faster than normal in an uncontrolled fashion. While there are various types of cancer, usually determined by where the cancer originates, the three most common ones are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common skin cancer. It starts in the basal cells, which are one of the three main cells on the top layers of the skin (epidermis). BCC is mainly caused by ultraviolet rays (UV) from the sun and indoor tanning beds, so you will see it in areas exposed to the sun. This includes your face, neck, chest, arms, legs, and back. It can be successfully treated when diagnosed early, but it can get into the deeper layers of the skin and cause severe damage to skin and bone if left unchecked.
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common skin cancer. Squamous cells are flat cells that grow on the top layer of the skin. SCCs also show up in sun-exposed areas but can be found anywhere. They can appear as scaly red patches, open sores, or rough, thick wart-like skin. Most SCCs are easily treatable but can become disfiguring, dangerous, and even deadly if they move to other parts of the body.
Melanoma is cancer of the melanocytes, the cells that produce melanin (the pigment that gives skin its color.) Although incidences of melanoma are smaller, it is considered the most dangerous of the three for its ability to spread more quickly. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the five-year survival rate for melanomas treated early is 99%. That number lowers to 30% if the melanoma spreads to the lymph nodes and other organs.
The Key is Early Diagnosis
Early diagnosis is essential because it allows for a better opportunity to cure skin cancer. The longer one has skin cancer, the more difficult it is to treat. Unlike other cancers that develop inside your body, skin cancers are visible on the outside, allowing us to help in the early diagnosis. The following two types of examinations are essential to catching problem areas on time.
- Skin Self-Examination and What to Look For – We recommend you do a skin self-exam at least once a month. This requires you to look at your body from head to toe for any spots (moles, freckles, sores, etc.) changing in size, shape, color, or a spot that looks like a pimple or sore that does not heal within a month. Skin self-exams are easier done after a bath or shower. Don’t forget to check out harder-to-see places on your body. Any suspicious spots should be checked by a Provider at a dermatology office.
- Dermatologist Skin Exams – A skin exam with a Dermatologist is vital if you are concerned about a changing spot in your skin. People who have a history of skin cancer or are at higher risk of skin cancer (fair skin, blue eyes, red hair, organ transplant, etc.) should be seen more often than people at a lower risk. Higher-risk patients are seen at least annually. Your Dermatologist will discuss with you how often you should be seen.
Top 3 Tips for Reducing Skin Cancer Risk
Now that we know that skin cancer is preventable, in many cases, especially if we are proactive about taking care of our skin, here are three tips that can go a long way towards keeping our skin cancer-free.
- Cover your skin with clothing. This can include long-sleeve shirts and pants and a broad-brimmed hat. Don’t forget to protect your eyes by wearing sunglasses.
- Sunscreen should be applied to sun-exposed skin. Use one with an SPF of at least 30 or more, and make sure to reapply it every 1-2 hours.
- If you are concerned about a spot on your body, call your Dermatologist.
Myths and Misconceptions About Skin Cancer and Prevention
One I hear a lot is that a tan will help prevent skin cancer. This is a myth! A tan indicates damage to your skin cells’ DNA, and it actually increases your risk of acquiring skin cancer. Same thing if you decide to get a “base tan” by using an indoor tanning bed. In fact, the Skin Cancer Foundation warns that indoor tanning devices can emit UV rays 10 to 15 times higher than the sun at peak hours, increasing the odds of getting skin cancer by 40 to 69 percent.
Skin Cancer Prevention and Information Resources
I recommend the American Academy of Dermatology – Skin Cancer Resource Center and the Skin Cancer Foundation websites to learn more about skin cancer. They both have great, reliable, and up-to-date information.
At Advanced Dermatology & Skin Surgery, we are also available if you have any questions about skin cancer prevention, how it gets diagnosed and treated, and if you have any concerns. Book a medical appointment today.
About Our Provider
Chadd Sukut, MD, FAAD, FACMS – Dr. Sukut is a Fellowship-Trained Mohs Surgeon and Board-Certified Dermatologist specializing in Mohs Micrographic Surgery, Medical Dermatology, and Skin Cancer Treatments. He is passionate about making a difference in the community and aiding in the health care of patients of all ages. You can find him at the Spokane Valley, WA office and Coeur d’Alene, ID office.