May is melanoma awareness month. Surprisingly, few people we have talked to lately were aware of this, and about skin cancer detection and prevention in general. Because we want to build awareness of the topic, we are posting a two-part blog dedicated to the prevention and early detection of one of the most preventable cancers – skin cancer.
What is Skin Cancer?
Many types of cancer occur in the skin. The most common are those that come from the 3 main cell types in the skin: melanocytes, basal cells and squamous cells. While we think of sunlight as life-giving, exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV) from sunlight is the number one cause of skin cancer because it damages these cells. UV is a carcinogen with the same classification as smoking and asbestos – a risk that most people don’t realize.
There are two broad groups of skin cancer that result from UV exposure: melanoma and non-melanoma cancer. All 3 occur most frequently on areas repeatedly exposed to UV, namely the face, head, ears, neck, and back.
Melanoma is fast growing, may spread from where it first develops and can be fatal if not removed early and completely. Melanoma arises from melanocytes, the cells that produce melanin which protects our cells from the harmful effects of UV radiation. The darker the skin, the more melanin it contains. Moles also contain melanin. Although UV exposure is the most important (and avoidable) risk for melanoma, melanoma can occur in non-sun exposed areas of the skin and on mucous membranes, such as the mouth. Melanoma is not always dark in colour. In 1935 melanoma occurred in 1/1500 individuals; in 2010 the rates grew to 1 in 50 people – a 30-fold increase.
Non-melanoma cancers are squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas. These tend to be slower growing and localized. While less aggressive, these forms of skin cancer are very common as people age.
Am I at Risk?
Men develop skin cancer at a higher rate than women. As you age, you are at greater risk, and especially if:
- You have fair, sensitive skin prone to sunburn; freckles; red or blonde hair; light eyes
- You have had 2 or more blistering sunburns
- You use tanning beds- this increases your risk by 20%
- You are frequently outside, even in Canada, without protecting your skin from the sun
- You have many moles (more than 50), or unusual moles
- You have a family history of skin cancer
Check Your Skin!
- Early detection of skin cancer often leads to a cure. According to the Canadian Dermatology Association, 53% of melanomas are discovered by the patients themselves and a further 17% by their family members. If detected and treated early, melanoma has a 90% cure rate. Lives can be saved. When self-examining your skin, remember the ABCDEs of detecting melanoma:
- A – Asymmetry – when the shape of a lesion differs from side to side
- B – Border – when the border of a lesion is irregular, jagged, and imprecise
- C – Colour – when there is variation in colour within a lesion (look for a mixture of brown, red, grey, white, and/or black)
- D – Diameter – when a lesion measures more than 6mm,
- E – Evolution – when there is a change in size, shape, the colour of a lesion; or when it develops symptoms such as bleeding, itching, or tenderness
If you have many moles, use the “ugly duckling” sign as a helpful alert: when a lesion looks or feels different than all the other moles on your body, ie it’s an “ugly duckling” compared to your other, normal-looking moles.
If you have a skin lesion which demonstrates any of the above signs, have it checked by your family doctor or dermatologist. A skin biopsy may be needed.
To learn more about the cause and prevention of melanoma click here. Prevention is the key to maintaining optimal skin health and reducing the risk of skin cancer. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog, coming out later this month, which will focus on the right type of protection and prevention not only for human health and safety.