May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and Alaska Center for Dermatology would like to take this time to raise awareness. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more than 5 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year, making it the number one cancer in the United States, and in fact, worldwide. It is estimated that one in five people will get skin cancer by the age of 70. One thing we can learn this month is that skin cancer is one of the most preventable cancers, and when detected early, it can be treated successfully. Our very own Peter Ehrnstrom, M.D., answers your top skin cancer questions.
Q: What are some of the signs and symptoms of skin cancer?
There are numerous ways a skin cancer can present and describing all those possibilities is not possible. A better way of self-examination is to look for the ugly duckling on your skin. This is either something that has been present for a long time that is changing (growing, itching, bleeding, changing color, crusting, etc.), or it is something brand new that just doesn’t look like anything else on your body. If a growth fits into one of these two categories, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a skin cancer, but you are not likely to miss the one that is if you are paying attention at this level. Finally, things that come and go within a few weeks are rarely related to skin cancer. If you are concerned about something new and it is still there eight weeks later, it’s time to make an appointment to have it checked out. “Comes and goes” –probably ok. “Comes and grows”—get it examined.
Q: Why is early diagnosis of skin cancer important?
With early intervention, almost all forms of skin cancer can be cured. The skin gives us the ability to see things early in their growth cycle. Unlike internal organs, we do not need to wait for these growths to become symptomatic before we know they exist. Your eyes are all you need to notice their existence. Depending on the location, size, and type of cancer, many skin malignancies are treatable with topical medications or short procedures performed in the office. Delay in diagnosis may necessitate more serious interventions and may increase the chances of the cancers metastasizing and even leading to death.
Q: How often should we do a self-examination? How about a full skin exam?
Looking at your skin every day makes it difficult to notice changes (think of watching the grass grow). Every couple of months, take a few minutes in front of a mirror to scan your body looking for the ugly duckling on your skin. This is either something that has been present for a long time that is changing (growing, itching, bleeding, changing color, crusting, etc.), or it is something brand-new that just doesn’t look like anything else on your body.
Your Dermatologist will determine the frequency of in-office exams. This timeframe will be based on many factors including any personal history of skin cancers, family history of the same, history of many or atypical moles, and history of premalignant lesions on your exam.
Q: Can a tan increase my risk for skin cancer?
What is important for skin cancer prevention is to behave in such a way as to minimize changing the color of your skin from exposure to radiation from the sun or tanning beds. When the skin turns red or tan or brown from exposure, it is working overtime to repair DNA damage caused by that exposure. It is the cumulative damage that we do to our skin through the years that leads to most skin cancers and most of the changes we attribute to aging. If you want to stay young-looking and keep your risk of skin cancer to a minimum, wear sun-protective clothing when you are active outdoors. If you have a choice, do those activities during times of lower sun exposure levels. Finally, for those areas on your body not covered by other means, use a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Just realize that a sunscreen’s protection is dwindling over time. You can only count on two to three hours of protection from any application. This diminishes if you are very active and sweating or in and out of water. That’s why it’s important to reapply sunscreen regularly throughout the day.
Q: What are your top three tips for reducing the risk of skin cancer?
- Don’t use tanning beds. The use of these devices causes cancer. This includes the common practice of occasionally tanning before going on a vacation. This behavior is akin to pre-smoking a pack of cigarettes before you smoke another pack.
- Pay attention to the messages your skin is sending you. Color changes following sun exposure should be interpreted as the skin telling us it is working overtime to repair DNA damage caused by that exposure.
- Don’t ignore the ugly duckling on your skin. Specifically, anything you’ve had for some time that is changing (growing, itching, bleeding, changing color, crusting, etc.). It can also be something brand-new that just doesn’t look like anything else on your body. If it doesn’t completely go away in eight weeks, get an appointment to have that duckling professionally evaluated.
Q: What treatment options are available for skin cancer?
Many skin malignancies are treatable with topical medications or short procedures performed in the office. Surgical excisions can cure many skin cancers. More complex skin malignancies or those on the head and neck may need Mohs Surgery, a specialized surgical removal of these lesions with an onsite microscopic pathological evaluation of the tissue followed by reconstruction of the resulting defect. Finally, more advanced skin cancers may require a multi-disciplinary team which could include other surgeons, oncologists, and/or radiation oncologists.
At Alaska Center for Dermatology, we are available if you have any questions about skin cancer prevention, how it’s diagnosed and treated, and if you have any concerns. Book a medical appointment today.