May is National Skin Cancer & Melanoma Awareness Month and, with more than 300 days of sunshine annually, Arizonans are exposed to more UV rays than most Americans. Oftentimes, people go about their fun in the sun lives without acknowledging the high risk that the sun inflicts on the skin, so get the facts on skin cancer prevention and treatment to help protect yourself against skin cancer. But first, let’s get to the bottom of what is skin cancer?
What is Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells that occurs when unrepaired DNA damage to skin cells (most often caused by ultraviolet radiation from sunshine or tanning beds) triggers mutations, or genetic defects, that lead the skin cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumors. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States and worldwide. More people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the U.S. than all other cancers combined—with more than 9,500 people diagnosed with skin cancer every day and more than two people die of the disease every hour. Early skin cancer detection is key to saving lives especially when 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70.
What Causes Skin Cancer?
The best ways to help lower your risk of skin cancer is to stay out of intense sunlight and practice sun safety. Risk factors for skin cancer include:
- Too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation (from sunlight or tanning beds and lamps)
- Pale skin (easily sunburned, doesn’t tan much or at all, natural red or blond hair)
- Exposure to large amounts of coal tar, paraffin, arsenic compounds, or certain types of oil
- You or members of your family have had skin cancers
- Multiple or unusual moles
- Severe sunburns in the past
- Weakened immune system
- Older age (although melanomas are also found in younger people)
Childhood sun exposure can cause skin damage and increase the risk of developing skin cancer later in life—toddlers are especially at risk for getting too much sun because of their delicate skin.
How to Prevent Skin Cancer
The best way to prevent skin cancer is to limit exposure to sunlight.
Having a suntan or sunburn means that the skin has been damaged by the sun, and continued tanning or burning increases the chance of developing skin cancer. People who live in Phoenix, also lovingly known as the Valley of the Sun, are susceptible to the sun 296 days out of the year, which is why we encourage our patients to wear sunscreen 365 days a year. Follow these tips to protect your skin from the damaging effects of sun exposure and reduce your risk of skin cancer.
- Always use sunscreen, at least 30 SPF UVA/UVB
- Wear a wide brim hat and sunglasses
- Avoid midday sun exposure – the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Avoid tanning booths
- Perform self-examinations once a month
- Schedule an annual full-body skin exam with your dermatologist
If you’re getting out of the house for some time outdoors, check out this sun safety guide for everything you need to know about while you’re enjoying the sunshine! Remember, even on cloudy or cold days, you still need to be wearing your sunscreen! To protect you from the sun’s harmful rays, check out some of our provider’s favorite sunscreens. Sunscreen can help prevent skin cancer, sunburns, and premature skin aging but only if used properly, so make sure to avoid the most common sunscreen mistakes.
In addition to wearing sunblock daily, did you know some foods and vitamin supplements may naturally protect your skin from cancer and photo-aging? Foods high in antioxidants, like vitamin C, vitamin E, and vitamin B3, are not only beneficial to your body, they are good for skin protection, too.
How to Check Yourself For Skin Cancer
Skin cancer can be found early, and you and your health care providers play key roles in finding skin cancer. According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, people must practice monthly head-to-toe self-examination of their skin, so that they can find any new or changing lesions that might be cancerous or precancerous. Skin cancers found and removed early are almost always curable.
While your dermatologist is trained to tell the difference between the types of skin cancers, it’s also important for you to know what skin cancers look like. This can help you find them at the earliest possible stage when they are cured most easily. Skin cancer symptoms are most commonly associated with moles on the skin—but how can you tell if your mole is cancerous? Learn how to examine your skin for changes with skin cancer photos and see a dermatologist if you have any of these symptoms:
- Any change on your skin, especially in the size or color of a mole, growth, or spot, or a new growth (even if it has no color)
- Scaliness, roughness, oozing, bleeding, or a change in the way an area of skin looks
- A sore that doesn’t heal
- The spread of pigment (color) beyond its border, such as dark coloring that spreads past the edge of a mole or mark
- A change in sensation, such as itchiness, tenderness, or pain
- Check the skin on all surfaces of your body, even in your mouth.
- Watch for a new mole or other new growth on your skin.
- Check for changes in the appearance of old growth on the skin or scar (especially a burn scar).
- Watch for a patch of skin that is a different color and becomes darker or changes color.
- Watch for a sore that does not heal – it may bleed or form a crust.
- Check your nails for a dark band. Check with your doctor if you see changes, such as if the dark band begins to spread.
A simple test that you can do at home might just save your life! Between annual skin exams, you should be checking your moles at home every month using the “ABCDE” rule. The “ABCDE” rule describes the features of early melanoma and is a tool used to identify abnormal moles. This acronym stands for asymmetry, borders, color, diameter, and evolving.
You should be looking for these changes regularly, especially if you have a family history of skin cancer. If you have noticed any of these changes, it’s best to make an annual skin exam with one of our providers.
Types of Skin Cancer
The vast majority of skin cancers are composed of three different types: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.
Basal and Squamous Cell Cancers are types of skin cancer that are classified as non-melanomas to set them apart from the more serious type of skin cancer, melanoma. They usually start in the basal cells or squamous cells, which is how they get their names. These cells are found at the base of the outer layer of the skin. Most basal and squamous cell cancers develop on sun-exposed areas of the skin, like the face, ears, neck, lips, and the backs of the hands. Depending on the type, they can be fast or slow growing, but they rarely spread to other parts of the body. About 90 percent of nonmelanoma skin cancers are associated with exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common form of skin cancer. An estimated 4.3 million cases of BCC are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. BCCs arise from abnormal, uncontrolled growth of basal cells. Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common form of skin cancer. More than 1 million cases of SCC are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. The latest figures suggest that more than 15,000 people die of squamous cell carcinoma of the skin in the U.S. each year—more than twice as many as from melanoma. Regular daily use of an SPF 15 or higher sunscreen reduces the risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma by about 40 percent.
Basal cell and squamous cell cancers can be cured if found and treated early. Basal cell carcinoma is discussed in more detail in The Most Frequently Occurring Form of Skin Cancer and squamous cell carcinoma in The Second Most Common Form of Skin Cancer.
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that begins in melanocytes and is potentially dangerous because it can invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body. The earlier melanoma is detected and removed, the more likely the treatment will be successful. When detected early, the 5-year survival rate for melanoma is 99 percent. Melanoma can develop from a common mole or a dysplastic nevus and in areas of apparently normal skin. Often the first sign of melanoma is a change in the shape, color, or size of a mole. Having 5 or more sunburns doubles your risk for melanoma.
In the past decade (2010 – 2020), the number of new invasive melanoma cases diagnosed annually increased by 47 percent. It’s estimated that the number of new melanoma cases diagnosed in 2020 will increase by almost 2 percent and the number of melanoma deaths is expected to decrease by 5.3 percent. Treatment often starts with complete removal of the melanoma and normal-looking skin around it. This helps to ensure that the cancer cells are removed. Melanomas are discussed in more detail in this guide by the American Cancer Society.
Atypical melanocytic proliferations (AMP’s) are neoplasms which are considered to be precursors to melanoma. They begin in melanocytes and show features under the microscope which are very similar to melanoma. Like melanomas, they can develop from a normal mole, a dysplastic nevus, or on normal skin. If an AMP is left untreated, there is a high likelihood that it will develop into a melanoma. Therefore treatment involves surgical excision to ensure that the lesion is completely removed.
What is a dysplastic nevus? A dysplastic nevus is an unusual mole that may be large and flat and does not have a symmetric round or oval shape. The edge is often indistinct. It may have a mixture of pink, tan, or brown shades. Dysplastic nevi, while not cancerous, have the potential to change and develop into melanoma, a life-threatening skin cancer. People who have many dysplastic nevi have a greater chance of developing melanoma.
Who has an increased risk of developing dysplastic nevi? People with numerous moles, significant sun exposure or a family history of melanoma are at risk.
How do you identify and treat dysplastic nevi? A dysplastic nevus may occur anywhere on the body but is usually seen in areas exposed to the sun. A dysplastic nevus may also appear in areas not typically exposed to the sun, such as the scalp. The “ABCDE” rule describes the features of early melanoma and is a tool used to identify abnormal moles. As a preventative measure, an excision may be recommended to remove the mole and the surrounding margin of abnormal cells.
How To Treat Skin Cancer
Early detection is key to saving lives. Annual complete body skin examinations by the doctors at Affiliated Dermatology can help in the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer.
Affiliated Dermatology specializes in the treatment of malignant melanoma by using the specialized technique of Mohs micrographic surgery. As the most advanced and effective treatment today, Mohs surgery is a precise surgical technique used to treat skin cancer. During Mohs surgery, thin layers of cancer-containing skin are progressively removed and examined until only cancer-free tissue remains. This surgery permits the immediate and complete microscopic examination of the removed cancerous tissue so that all extensions of the cancer can be eliminated. Some tumor cell types, including melanocytes, lose their cellular details when processed as frozen tissue used in traditional Mohs surgery. In order to accurately and adequately evaluate excised tissue margins of thin melanomas, a leading-edge, modified Mohs surgery technique called “slow Mohs” was recently developed.
The slow Mohs procedure for skin cancer utilizes permanent sections for tissue evaluation. This skin cancer procedure allows for microscopic evaluation of the entire surgical margin. Any residual tumor seen is removed by repeating the “slow Mohs” procedure. After complete removal of the melanoma cells, reconstructive surgery is completed with maximal preservation. With an in-house laboratory and board-certified dermatopathologist, the doctors at Affiliated Dermatology are able to provide this state-of-the-art treatment for thin melanomas. Not all skin cancers require Mohs surgery. Affiliated Dermatology will determine if you are a candidate and require this procedure.
Superficial Radiation Therapy
Affiliated Dermatology also specializes in non-melanome skin cancer treatment by using the specialized Superficial Radiation Therapy (SRT) technique. SRT eliminates cancer from delicate and hard to reach areas. By delivering a precise, calibrated dose of Superficial Radiation Therapy that only goes skin deep, you can be safely treated right in our office for non-melanoma skin cancers.
Low-dose Superficial Radiation Therapy is virtually painless and effectively destroys basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, as well as the non-malignant tumor cells that cause keloids. Best of all, it doesn’t involve cutting, bleeding or stitching. With this technology, there is no need for anesthesia, no risk of infection or scarring, no need for reconstructive plastic surgery. Patients heal quickly and don’t have downtime or lifestyle restrictions following treatment.
Skin Cancer Screenings in Arizona
Affiliated Dermatology recommends annual full body skin exams with your dermatologist in addition to monthly self-exams for patients with a personal history of melanoma. Affiliated Dermatology performs skin exams and biopsies that can quickly determine whether a patient is at risk of developing skin cancer or has already developed the disease. We highly recommend that you see a dermatologist for a skin cancer risk assessment if you meet any of the following criteria:
- A family history of melanoma in two or more blood relatives
- The presence of multiple atypical moles
- The presence of numerous actinic keratoses (precancerous lesions that are grey to pink colored scaly patches of skin on sun-exposed areas of the body)
If you notice a change on your skin, see your dermatologist right away and don’t wait until the spot or mole looks like the more advanced skin cancers. When skin cancer is found early, it can be treated more easily.
Find a dermatologist near you at one of Affiliated Dermatology’s eight convenient locations in Scottsdale, Anthem, Deer Valley, Surprise, Gilbert, Ahwatukee, Tempe, or Old Town Scottsdale, AZ. Contact us and schedule your annual full-body skin cancer screening today!