Skin cancer is something we hear about frequently but unfortunately is something we may not be fully aware of when it comes to our own bodies. Here is a quick lesson on what to look for, when to seek professional help and what steps you can take to avoid getting it in the first place.
The three common forms of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common but least aggressive form of skin cancer. It may appear as a pearly bump or as a pink, scaly patch. It is most frequently found on sun exposed areas such as the head, neck, forearms and upper torso. This cancer bleeds easily with minor trauma.
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) may not be as dangerous as melanoma, but it too can spread or metastasize if not treated. Like BCCs these occur in the areas repeatedly damaged by the sun and often appear as a pink, scaly spot or a crusty, thick bump.
Melanoma is the most dangerous type as it can grow rapidly and become life-threatening quickly if not treated. The ABCD rule is often used to spot a melanoma and typically refer to changes within moles. Moles that become Asymmetrical in shape, have irregular or smudged Borders, Colors that are uneven or a Diameter larger than 1/4 inch.
“Most skin cancers are due to ultraviolet radiation, which over time causes repeat damage to the DNA of our skin cells,” says Dr. Leslie Coker, dermatologist with Associates in Dermatology in Hampton. “Our skin's immune system does a good job of repairing that damage initially, but with excessive and repeat exposure, it falters, and a cancer may form. Tanning is actually a sign of DNA damage. The skin cell is trying to protect its nucleus and DNA by covering it with an umbrella of pigment to shield it from the sun’s rays. A tan is pretty much a warning sign.”
Dr. Coker suggests that people should be vigilant in checking their bodies for unusual-looking or fast-growing spots, also known as the Ugly Duckling sign. If you have any doubts about a growth on your skin, visit your dermatologist. Even if you don’t have spots that you are particularly worried about, it’s a good idea to visit your dermatologist to get a baseline examination. In many cases, you don’t even need a referral from your family doctor to see a dermatologist (ask what your insurance covers when making an appointment).
“I give patients a baseline exam and plenty of Dermatology 101. I explain what they already have as well as what to look for,” says Coker. “From then on, I might see them in a year. However, I insist that if something appears that causes concern they should call the office for a focused visit. It’s not uncommon for a patient to point out a concerning spot only to have a skin cancer discovered elsewhere.”
To reduce your chances of getting skin cancer, the best defense is a good offense. Wear sunscreen and protective clothing, and seek shade, especially during peak hours of sun intensity. Coker also suggests that supplements like nicotinamide (sometimes called niacinamide) or Heliocare may also help. “Dietary measures are getting a lot of attention these days,” she says. “Nicotinamide and Heliocare have been show to provide protective mechanisms against the sun’s rays. They are safe, inexpensive and easily available. However, I would only recommend them as a secondary measure behind protective clothing and sunscreen.”