Skin Cancer Prevention: How to Reduce Your Risk
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, with basal cell carcinoma being the most common subtype. (4,6) The main types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma. There are also a handful of rare skin cancers including Merkel cell carcinoma, which is very aggressive. (6)
Basal cell carcinoma BCC is defined as abnormal, uncontrolled growths that arise from the skin’s basal cells in the epidermis — the outermost layer of skin. Most cases are caused by a combination of intermittent intense exposure and cumulative, long-term exposure to UV rays. (6)
Therapies currently used to treat basal cell are very effective, with an 85 to 95 percent recurrence-free cure rate, meaning the area of skin treated is effectively cured after the first round of treatment. (7)
Anthony M. Rossi, MD, a dermatologic surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City who specializes in Mohs micrographic surgery and cutaneous oncology, says BCC is often confused for a pimple that won’t heal or go away, but how basal cell carcinoma looks can vary. He says warning signs include an area of skin that’s red, crusted, scaly, not healing, or bleeding, or even a new shiny pearly papule.
Squamous cell carcinoma SCC develops from an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells arising from the squamous cells in the epidermis. Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer and is caused by UV radiation from the sun and tanning beds. (7)
Like BCC, it’s most common in sun-exposed areas of the skin such as the ears, face, scalp, neck, and hands. (6) It can appear as a firm, red nodule or a flat lesion with a scaly, crusted surface. (8)
Melanoma Melanoma is the deadliest of skin cancers and one of the most common cancers found among young adults in the United States, according to the Melanoma Research Alliance. (9) According to the CDC, the incidence of melanoma has doubled over the past three decades in the United States. (10)
It develops from melanocytes, the skin cells that produce melanin pigment, which gives skin its color. (6) Dr. Rossi says melanoma can form from preexisting moles on the body, though it most commonly develops as a new lesion on the skin.
Signs of melanoma include a large brownish spot with darker speckles, a mole changing in color, size or feel, a lesion that bleeds or has an irregular border with portions that appear red, pink, white, blue, or blue-black. It can also be a painful lesion that itches or burns. (8)
Catching and treating melanoma early is key for recovery. It’s one of the reasons skin checks and a relationship with a dermatologist is so important.
“A lot of people don’t realize that general physicians’ practitioners receive zero dermatological training,” says Callahan. “You need to see somebody who’s trained.”
Callahan, whose four episodes of skin cancer have all been melanoma, emphasizes screenings and early detection as a key factor in skin cancer prevention and survival.
If someone has already had melanoma, the risk of recurrence is higher, as is the risk for developing new melanomas. People who’ve had BCC or SCC are also more likely to develop melanoma. (11)
For all stages of melanoma, the average five-year survival rate in the United States is 92 percent. For patients whose melanoma is detected early, it rises to 99 percent. The survival rate falls to 65 percent when the disease reaches the lymph nodes, and 25 percent when the disease metastasizes to other organs. (12)
After surviving melanoma the first time, Callahan had a dermatologist appointment every three months, as is customary for recent skin cancer survivors. She was diagnosed with melanoma the three other times during those checkups. Fortunately, all were caught early. Callahan now takes extra precautions, rotating between two dermatologists so nothing is overlooked.
Since her first diagnosis, Callahan has also been treated for precancerous lesions, an important aspect of skin cancer prevention for people in need of such treatment. Despite being benign, those treatments may leave scars or require surgery.
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