Skin Cancer: Recognizing the Trouble Spots
Could that bump, sore or mole be a sign of something sinister? What you should know about spotting skin cancer.
Already one of the most common cancers in the world, the incidence of skin cancer is on the rise. Luckily, it’s also one of the most curable forms of cancer — but early detection is key.
Here, what you need to know to spot trouble:
Skin cancer: The big three
Think skin cancer is all about odd moles? One type is: melanoma. This most dangerous form of skin cancer starts in the melanocytes (the cells that make melanin, the pigment that colours our skin and hair). If left untreated, tumours can grow deep into the skin and metastasize — spreading the cancer to other parts of the body.
Melanoma isn’t as deadly as other types of cancer, but it can still claim lives. This year, doctors will diagnose about 5,500 new cases of melanoma, according to predictions from the Canadian Cancer Society. While 950 people are predicted to die due to melanoma in 2011, the disease still has a high five-year survival rate: 86 per cent for males and 93 per cent for females.
Less risky — but not to be under estimated — are non-melanoma skin cancers. Two of the most common kinds include:
Who is most at risk?
UV ray exposure is thought to be the top cause of most kinds of skin cancer whether it comes from the sun or a tanning bed. The more exposure you get, the higher the risk — especially if you’ve had severe sunburns in the past. Many skin cancers occur on parts of the skin that get regular exposure — like the back, face, arms and lower legs. People who are often outdoors or work outdoors have an increased risk.
What else should you consider?
– Complexion: people with light-coloured skin, hair and eyes are more likely to develop skin cancer. If you burn before you tan, you could be at higher risk.
– Age: as with most cancers, the risk increases with age. Skin cancer is most likely to show up after age 40.
– Genetics: if you have a family history of melanoma, you’re more likely to develop it — especially if you have atypical moles.
Recognizing the signs
How can you tell a benign issue from a trouble spot? It’s up to the experts to make a diagnosis — with a thorough examination and often a biopsy — but here are some signs to keep in mind:
Because melanoma stars with moles, experts recommend minding your ABCDEs, that is:
– Asymmetry: one half of the mole looks different than the other in shape, colour or texture.
– Borders: irregular borders, that is edges that are notched, blurred, or jagged.
– Colour that is uneven: most moles are shades of tan and browns. However, trouble moles may have grey, red, pink, blue or black and blue patches.
– Diameter: melanomas can be small, but most are more than 6 millimetres or 1/4 inch in diameter — about the size of a pea or the eraser on your pencil.
– Evolving: moles do go through harmless changes throughout our lives, but a change could signal trouble. If you spot changes, don’t panic — but do talk to your doctor.
What about non-melanoma skin cancers? Watch out for:
There are a lot of risks we can’t control, but we can tackle the most common one: sun and UV exposure. You know the drill: wear sunscreen (plenty of it, and re-applied often), skip the tanning beds and stay out of the sun from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Sunglasses, a hat and protective clothing are also a must.
However, be aware that your summer clothing may be too light to provide much coverage. Some sources recommend holding up the fabric to see how much light comes through — that’s how much sun is getting through to your skin. If you’re shopping for protective clothing, look for tightly-woven fabrics, dark colours and certain fabrics (light high-sheen polyester or unbleached cotton) that block more light.
Some clothing tags even list the item’s Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) — a measure that tells you how much of the sun’s UV rays reach your skin. Experts say to aim for a UPF of 50 or above: that means that means one 1/50th (or 2 per cent) of the sun’s UV radiation reaches your skin. (For more details, see the Skin Cancer Foundation’s advice on Protective Clothing.)
These protective measures are even more important for younger adults and children. It’s not just the many years of cumulative exposure ahead: The damaged ozone layer means more UV is reaching us. Experts estimate that Canadians born during the 1990s are two to three times more likely to develop skin cancer than Canadians born during the 1960s.
While any kind of cancer can be scary, skin cancer doesn’t have to take a devastating toll. Taking the time to prevent sun exposure and watch for warning signs means a better outcome.