There are three types of skin cancers; basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma.
Basal Cell is the most common form of skin cancer, most often caused by sun exposure. Squamous Cell is the second most common, and is from sun exposure as well. Melanoma can metastasize and can be life threating. All of these skin cancers can be managed easily if detected early, hence the importance of regular skin exams.
I am excited to say that most of my patients I see for skin exams are using sunscreen much better now than they did growing up. Days of tanning beds and baking in the sun are long gone for most… but what we did outdoors in our youth is slowly catching up with us now. Getting a yearly skin exam is essential to ensure you are clear of skin cancer.
Many patients come in and are diagnosed with a “precancer” called an actinic keratosis, or AK for short. If left untreated, AKs can develop into skin cancer. They appear on skin surfaces that have been most exposed to the sun or artificial sources of UV light, tanning beds. AKs typically occur on the face, lips, ears, scalp, back of the neck, hands, and forearms. AKs usually appear as a small crusty or scaly bump or horn.
About 5 million cases of basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) are treated in the US each year. Outdoor workers, especially those who are fair skinned, have a high incidence of BCC and SCC. But even in the general population, more and more people, many in their 20’s and 30’s, are being diagnosed with these cancers. The number of women under age 40 diagnosed with BCC and SCC has especially increased in the last 30 years, and many experts attribute this to their greater use of indoor tanning.
Cure rates are high for BCC and SCC. If detected and treated early there is close to a 100 percent cure rate. However, the larger and deeper the tumor grows, the more dangerous and potentially disfiguring it may become, and the more extensive the treatment must be. While BCCs seldom spread to vital organs, they can cause major disfigurement and occasionally result in nerve or muscle injury. Certain rare, aggressive forms can become lethal if not treated promptly. SCCs have a greater chance of spreading and becoming life threatening if untreated.
Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. Heredity can play a major role in melanoma formation, and the disease may often be triggered by intense, intermittent sun exposure. Over the past two decades, as outdoor recreational activities have increased and fashions have left more skin exposed, melanoma incidence rates have more than tripled. Fair skinned people with light hair and eye color and those who have had sunburns, tend to burn easily, or use tanning beds are at increased risk of developing melanoma. So are those who have a family history of the disease or have ever had a melanoma or other skin cancer. New research suggests that people with numerous normal moles may be at increased risk as well. In its earliest stages, melanoma is readily curable. Left untreated, it can spread to vital organs and become life threatening.
I hear stories daily from patients who come in for a skin exam because a “friend or relative” ignored a spot that later was detected as a skin cancer and either ended up with a large surgery or became life threatening.
I would never ask my patients to change their healthy lifestyle that includes the outdoors, I simply ask that you use the appropriate amount of sunscreen regularly, wear sun protective clothing when necessary, and get a skin exam regularly.
I hope to see you soon for your skin exam!!!
Jennifer Moller MS, PA-C