Summer is here and KentuckyOne Health is encouraging Kentuckians to take action and protect themselves and their families from skin cancer, which is often a result of sun damage. Skin cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer, affecting more than 3.3 million Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Kentucky ranks among the top 10 states in the country for highest rates of diagnosed melanoma,” said Jessica Pennington, MD, KentuckyOne Health Primary Care Associates. “While not all skin cancer is preventable, practicing safe sun exposure can vastly reduce diagnoses.”
Skin cancer is the abnormal growth of skin cells on the top layer of skin. It primarily develops on areas exposed to the sun – face, lips, legs, hands, neck, chest and scalp – but it can also form on areas that rarely see light, including palms, the pelvic area, beneath fingernails, behind ears and the bottoms of feet. There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer and begins in the basal cells, which line the deepest part of the epidermis. Typically, basal cell carcinoma presents as a slightly transparent or flesh-colored bump on the surface of skin, in areas regularly exposed to the sun.
The second most common form of skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), affects the squamous cells that make up the middle and outer layer of the skin. Squamous cell carcinoma can be an aggressive cancer, and if left untreated can spread to other parts of the body leading to serious complications. SCC can look like scaly red patches, red nodules or raised areas on an old scar with a depression in the center. SCC can also form in areas not typically exposed to sunlight including inside the mouth or on the genitals.
The deadliest type of skin cancer is melanoma. Like basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, it is often caused by ultraviolet radiation from the sun or tanning beds. The cancerous growths develop when unrepaired DNA damage to skin cells trigger mutations, leading to malignant tumors. Symptoms include a large brownish spot with darker speckles, a mole that changes in color or size, a small lesion with an irregular border that appears red, white, blue or black, or dark lesions on your palms, fingertips, toes, mouth, nose, vagina or anus.
According to the CDC, more than 9,000 people a year reportedly die from melanoma in the United States. Though the average age of people diagnosed with melanoma is 63, the American Cancer Society warns it is one of the most common cancers in young women under 30.
The biggest risk factor for skin cancer – unprotected exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light – is also the most easily preventable. According to the CDC, it can take as little as 15 minutes for the sun’s rays to damage unprotected skin. The CDC recommends application of broad spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 15 before going outside, even on slightly cloudy or cool days. Sunscreen works best when combined with other sun protection measures including protective clothing, sunglasses, seeking shade when outdoors, and avoiding indoor tanning.
“Skin cancer is so common among all age groups in the United States, but many don’t know how to identify potential warning signs on their skin,” said Dr. Pennington. “Since early detection is key for successful treatment, routine self-checks of suspicious moles or new lesions on the skin and swift follow up with a medical professional is vital to decreasing the complications associated with skin cancer.”
To diagnose skin cancer, a physician will examine the skin, and remove a sample of questionable area for testing. Treatment for skin cancer depends on the type of cancer, size and location, and may include freezing the skin cancer with liquid nitrogen, excisional surgery to cut out cancerous tissue, surgery to remove the skin growth, or cryotherapy to scrape away layers of cancer cells and freeze the edges of the treated area with liquid nitrogen. Additional treatment for melanoma may include radiation or chemotherapy.
Since not all skin cancer looks the same, any change in the appearance of the skin is reason to see a doctor. People should make an appointment with their primary care physician if they notice a new growth, have a sore that doesn’t heal, or a change in a mole, as early intervention often leads to the best outcomes.
To learn more about how to protect yourself against skin cancer, call 1.844.423.3770 or visit www.kentuckyonehealth.org/findprimarycare.