Summer is ending and with it those long, lazy weekend days at the beach or, pool, getting in some extra hours of cycling, running, and walking, or just hanging out on a lawn chair with friends and some cold drinks. The sun is strong and hot and oh so relaxing. It’s just the thing you need to unwind from the work week. It’s so comforting in fact that most of us forget that in those rays lurks serious danger, even death. Haven’t figured out where we’re going with this yet? Skin cancer! And don’t think it’s something you only have to worry about in the summer. The sun is with us 365 days a year, and even though the weather may be cold in your part of the country, wherever the sun shines, skin cancer is a risk.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, there are three main types of skin cancer, all with somewhat similar sets of symptoms. And skin cancer, or more accurately cancers, can happen to anyone, at any age, and of any skin color.
Some 2.8 million Americans a year are diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma or BCC, the most common form of skin cancer. So called because it occurs in the basal cells of the skin – the inner part of the skin’s outer layer (epidermis), BCC often looks like a sore that doesn’t heal, a patch of pink or red, or a shiny bump. Though it rarely spreads beyond the original tumor site, and therefore is rarely life-threatening, BCC can be disfiguring if left untreated. The most frequent cause is the sun’s UV (ultra-violet) radiation, and what you need to know is that you are at risk whether you routinely spend time baking in the sun or you just subject yourself to infrequent intense bursts.
In addition to basal cells, the skin’s epidermis has many layers of squamous cells, and these can be the location of squamous cell carcinoma or SCC. Like BCC, their initial symptoms can be a sore that doesn’t heal, a patch of pink or red, or a shiny bump, that’s where the similarity ends.
Caused mainly by cumulative, as opposed to short-term exposure to the sun’s UV radiation, if left untreated SCC can be disfiguring and can even kill you if it spreads to other organs (yes the skin is an organ). The Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that 700,000 people are diagnosed with SCC each year, and of those some 2,500 cases result in death. What’s more, although they occur mostly on areas of the body that get frequent sun exposure (arms, legs, face, ears, lips, torso, feet), they can crop up in the mucous membranes and the genitals.
Of the three most common forms of skin cancer melanoma is the most dangerous. Melanoma develops when skin- cell mutations (defects in a cell’s genetic material) are generated by damaged DNA – damage such as that caused by UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds. The result is rapid and uncontrolled growth in the pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) of the epidermis. Melanomas often resemble moles, and some even develop from moles. Their color ranges from black or brown (the majority) to pretty much anything – skin-colored, pink, red, purple, blue or white. Again, UV radiation is the cause, and those with a family history are at higher risk. Caught and treated early on, it’s usually curable, but note that the US death rate from Melanoma is nearly 10,000 per year.
Obviously the best way to treat skin cancer is to prevent it. Check out the Skin Cancer Foundation’s Prevention Guide for helpful tips. Your life may depend on it.