Is It Skin Cancer? Early Signs to Watch For
Did you know cancer of the skin is the most common type of cancer?
It’s estimated that over 5 million Americans are diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancers each year, with over 100,000 diagnosed with invasive melanoma. Besides increased sun exposure, other factors behind the increasing number of skin cancer diagnoses include better detection methods and longer lifespans.
Skin cancer is an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the epidermis, which is the outermost layer of the skin. The primary cause is excessive exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or tanning beds. UV exposure leads to mutations in our DNA, causing uncontrolled cell replication and tumor formation. About 1 in 5 people will develop some type of skin cancer by age 70.
Although “cancer” is a scary word for anyone to hear, the good news is that most skin cancers can be successfully treated if caught early enough. Regular skin checks at home, along with visits to your dermatologist, help to identify cancerous and precancerous cells in their earliest stages. At Cayce Dermatology, we can often remove early skin cancers successfully.
Here’s what you need to know when it comes to early detection and treatment of skin cancer.
Types of Skin Cancer
The four most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma and Merkel cell carcinoma.
Basal Cell Carcinoma
This is the most common type of skin cancer, with over 3.6 million cases diagnosed each year in the United States. Basal cell carcinoma is an uncontrolled growth of abnormal basal cells in the epidermis.
It is caused by both intermittent, intense UV exposure and cumulative, long-term damage from UV radiation. Unsurprisingly, it most often affects areas exposed to the sun, including the face, ears, neck, scalp, shoulders and back.
Possible symptoms include (1) pearly or waxy bumps, (2) flat, rough, scar-like patches or (3) sores that don’t fully heal or that reappear. For most patients, the prognosis is excellent if the cancer is found and treated early. Basal cell carcinoma is rarely fatal and general grow at a very slow pace.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
The second most common type of skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma, is an uncontrolled, abnormal growth of squamous cells in the epidermis. About 1.8 million cases are diagnosed each year in the U.S.
Caused by cumulative, long-term exposure to UV light, it most often affects areas such as the face, ears, scalp, neck and hands. Early symptoms may include (1) firm, red nodules, (2) scaly or crusty lesions with irregular borders or (3) painful or itchy lesions. The long-term prognosis is good for most patients, but it may metastasize if not diagnosed early.
This is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. About 200,000 cases of melanoma are diagnosed each year. About half of all melanomas are in situ, meaning they are noninvasive and confined to the epidermis. However, the other half are invasive, which means they metastasize and may spread to other areas of the body. Invasive melanoma is responsible for about 7,500 deaths per year.
Melanoma develops in melanocytes. These are the cells that produce the pigment which gives our skin its color. Although it is triggered by UV exposure, it can occur anywhere on the skin, including areas not typically exposed to UV radiation. For people with darker skin, it is more likely to occur on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet.
Early detection and treatment of melanoma is the key to a good prognosis. Early signs include (1) moles that change appearance, (2) new, large brown spots with irregular shapes, (3) dark lesions on mucus membranes such as the nose and mouth and (4) dark lesions on the fingers or toes.
Merkel Cell Carcinoma
Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare, but aggressive, form of skin cancer that occurs most often in light-skinned people over 50. About 3,000 cases are diagnosed per year, with about 700 deaths. It is associated with a virus called Merkel cell polyomavirus and typically appears on sun-exposed areas such as the head or neck. Early signs include firm, painless lesions or nodules. It carries a high risk of metastasizing so early detection is key for successful treatment.
At-Home Skin Checks
Early detection of skin cancer starts at home. Make it a habit to check your skin regularly while bathing or changing clothes. Use a mirror or ask your partner for help with hard-to-see areas. The main thing you are looking for are unexplained changes in the appearance of your skin. Here are a few examples:
- Moles or freckles that change shape, size or color
- Dome-shaped growths
- Scaly patches
- Sores that don’t heal
- Previously healed sores that return
- Brown or black streaks under nails
When to See Your Dermatologist
Schedule an appointment with Cayce Dermatology if you notice any unexplained changes that last for two weeks or more. Many early skin cancers can be removed easily, but the longer you wait the harder it is to treat.
When you arrive for your appointment, your dermatologist will examine any suspicious areas on your skin and remove them if cancer is suspected. The tissue will be examined under a microscope to determine whether cancer cells are present. If cancer is diagnosed, your dermatologist will notify you what type it is and what, if any, further treatments may be needed.
In addition to finding and treating skin cancers, your dermatologist can also identify precancerous abnormalities before they progress to a cancerous stage. Regular skin exams are highly recommended for people at high risk of developing skin cancer.
Have you noticed unexplained changes in your skin? If so, schedule an appointment with Cayce Dermatology. A skin check by our medical team can save your life, as most skin cancers have a 98% chance of successful treatment if caught early.
To set up an appointment, please call us at 573-234-1000 or contact us online at any time.
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