In parts of the country where winter seems to drag on forever, spring and summer are exciting seasons. The air becomes warmer, the sun gets brighter and outdoor activities are frequent. Naturally, your skin’s exposure to the sun increases during this time of year, which results in a greater risk of skin damage, including development of skin cancer. The good news? Most skin cancers are preventable.
What is skin cancer?
Specifically, skin cancer is the abnormal growth of skin cells and usually the result of overexposure to the sun and harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Although skin that’s most exposed accounts for the majority of cases, well-covered areas of the body, like your palms or genital area, can also be affected. All pigmentations — dark and light — are subject to skin cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is the most common cancer in America, with 5.4 million basal and squamous cell skin cancers and more than 76,000 melanoma cases diagnosed each year. Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, kills more than 10,000 Americans each year — nearly 75 percent of all skin cancer deaths.
What common forms does skin cancer take?
Skin cancer can take many forms, but the three most common are:
- Basal cell carcinoma. Beginning in the basal cells in the outer layer of skin, basal cell carcinomas may appear as a pearly or waxy bump, as well as a flat, flesh-colored or brown scar-like lesion.
- Squamous cell carcinoma. Also in the outer layer of skin, this type of skin cancer forms in squamous cells. Signs are often a firm, red nodule or a flat lesion with a scaly, crusty surface.
- Melanoma. Melanoma makes up a small fraction of skin cancers, but it’s also the most deadly. Symptoms of melanoma include a large brown spot with darker speckles; a mole that changes in color, size or feel or that bleeds; a small lesion with an abnormal border and sections that appear red, white, blue or bluish-black; and dark lesions on your palms, soles, fingertips or toes, or on mucous membranes lining your nose, mouth, vagina or anus.
What can I do to prevent skin cancer?
Leading medical experts, including Mayo Clinic, recommend the following for preventing skin cancer:
- Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., which are the peak hours of sun strength in North America, even in the winter and on cloudy days.
- Wear sunscreen — at least SPF 15 — throughout the entire year. Re-apply sunscreen every two hours or more frequently if you’re swimming or sweating.
- Wear protective clothing. Hats with wide brims and clothing that covers your arms and legs are helpful — sunscreen doesn’t block all UV rays, which cause skin cancer.
- Avoid tanning beds. Tanning beds operate with UV lights, damaging your skin and potentially leading to cancer.
- Self-check your skin. If you notice differences, talk with your health care team.
Who’s most at risk for skin cancer?
Anyone can get skin cancer, but those at a higher risk include individuals who have a heavy exposure to UV rays, lighter skin, family history of skin cancer, prevalent moles, numerous severe sunburns in the past, weakened immune system and those who live in sunny or high-altitude climates.
Contact your health care team if you have concerns about skin abnormalities. Skin cancer is very treatable when caught in its early stages. Have fun as the warm days roll in, but always keep skin cancer prevention in mind.
Kevin Cockerill, M.D., is a Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato oncologist.