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Celebrate skin cancer awareness month with prevention

As spring turns to summer and you spend more time outdoors, don’t forget how important it is to protect your skin from the sun’s harsh rays. May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and the best way to celebrate is by protecting yourself and spreading the word to your friends and loved ones about preventing skin cancer.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in both men and women in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, the disease accounts for nearly half of all cancers, with nearly 3.6 million new cases diagnosed each year. The good news is that skin cancer is one of the most preventable cancers, and it can also be one of the most treatable when detected early.

Types of skin cancer

Skin cancer occurs when mutations form in the DNA of skin cells, causing them to grow out of control. Usually, the damage results from exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which comes from the sun and artificial rays (tanning beds, sunlamps). Skin cancer most often appears in areas that are exposed to the sun, such as the face, head, neck, hands, lips, ears and scalp. However, the disease can also develop in other areas, such as scars, skin ulcers or in the genital region.

The most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. There are also several very rare types of skin cancer that account for less than 1 percent of all cases, such as merkel cell carcinoma, cutaneous (skin) lymphoma and various types of sarcomas.

Symptoms to look for

Each type of skin cancer is different, and has unique symptoms.

Basal cell carcinomas on the head or neck may first appear as a pale patch of skin or a waxy translucent bump. You may see blood vessels or an indentation in the center of the bump. If the carcinoma develops on the chest it may look like a brownish scar or flesh-colored lesion. As the cancer develops, it may bleed, ooze or become crusty in some areas.

Squamous cell carcinomas may develop as a firm lump on the skin, and may be rough on the surface, unlike the smooth and pearly appearance of a basal cell carcinoma. If a nodule doesn't form, the cancer may develop as a reddish, scaly patch.

Melanoma signs include new spots on the skin, or a change in size, shape or color of an existing mole.

Follow the ABCD rule for spotting melanoma:

  • Asymmetry: A mole that has an irregular shape or two different looking halves. 
  •  Border: Irregular, blurred, rough or notched edges. 
  •  Color: Most moles are an even color, such as brown, black, tan or pink. Look for changes in the shade or distribution of color throughout. 
  •  Diameter: Moles larger than ¼ inch (6 mm, the size of a pencil eraser) across may be suspect, although some melanomas may be smaller than this.

Most moles are benign and will not need treatment. Take note of the above possible signs of skin cancer, and get to know your body. If you observe noticeable changes in your skin or see any of the above symptoms, consult your dermatologist.

Early detection and prevention

When detected early, treatment for skin cancer may require only a simple outpatient surgery at your dermatologist’s office. If it goes undetected, skin cancer can spread. Treatments for advanced skin cancer include chemotherapy and radiation, often coupled with surgery.

If you have risk factors for skin cancer such as fair skin, advanced age, a history of sunburns or a family history of skin cancer, schedule regular yearly checkups with your dermatologist.

Early detection of skin cancer is important, but you can reduce your risk with a few simple steps. Here are some tips to stop skin cancer before it starts:

Stay in the shade Wear protective clothing/hats when you’re in the sun Wear sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher Don’t forget to use sunscreen on your lips, ears and hairline Skip the tanning salon Protect your eyes with sunglasses Check your moles Prevent sunburns
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