Skin cancer is a disease in which cancer (malignant) cells develop in the layers of your skin. Your skin protects your body against heat, light, infection and injury. It also stores water and fat, and produces vitamin D. The skin has two main layers and several kinds of cells. There are several types of cancer that start in the outer layers of skin. The most common types are basal cell cancer and squamous cell cancer; these are called non-melanoma skin cancer. Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that starts in melanocytes (cells that make pigment). It is not as common as basal cell or squamous cell skin cancer, but it is much more serious.
Skin cancer is more common in people with light colored skin who have spent a lot of time in the sun. Skin cancer can occur anywhere on your body, but is most common in places that have been exposed to more sunlight, such as your face, neck, hands and arms.
The UV Index is a number from 0 to 10+ that indicates the amount of UV radiation reaching the Earth's surface during the noon hour. The higher the index number is, the greater your exposure to UV radiation is when outdoors. UV radiation is a cancer causing agent. Besides coming naturally from the sun, UV radiation comes from tanning beds and lamps. All three sources are the main causes of skin cancers.
Alarming numbers of young women are at high risk of developing melanoma from exposure to UV radiation in tanning beds.
Signs and symptoms of skin cancer
Skin cancer can look many different ways. The most common sign of skin cancer is a change on the skin, such as a growth or a sore that won't heal. Sometimes there may be a small lump that can be smooth, shiny and waxy looking, or it can be red or reddish brown. Skin cancer also may appear as a flat red spot that is rough or scaly. Not all changes in your skin are cancer, but you should see your primary care health care provider if you notice changes in your skin.
Like most cancers, skin cancer is best treated when found early. If you have a spot or lump on your skin, your clinician may recommend that you see a dermatologist to remove the growth and examine the tissue under a microscope. This is called a biopsy. A biopsy can usually be done in your doctor's office.
Reducing your risk
- Avoid too much sunlight; wear protective clothing; use sunscreen with SPF values of 15 or higher. These measures are especially important between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun's rays are the strongest. Also avoid the sun when the UV Index is high in your area.
- Use sunscreen with labels stating "sunscreen" or "sunblock" with SPF value of 15 or higher. If should be applied approximately 15 to 30 minutes before going outdoors and reapplied after swimming. It should be applied evenly on all exposed skin, including lips, nose, ears, neck, scalp (if hair is thinning), hands, feet and eyelids (care should be taken not to get sunscreen in your eyes because it can irritate them; if contact does occur, rinse your eyes thoroughly with water).
- Wear a hat and sunglasses- Hats with rims protect your face and neck from sun damage. Sunglasses can help protect your eyes from sun damage. The ideal sunglasses don't need to be expensive; they should block 99 to 100% of UVA and UVB rays. Sunglasses prevent UV rays from getting in the eyes, but won't help protect the skin around them.
- Cover up; wear lightweight, loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts, pants or long skirts as much as possible when in the sun.
- Avoid artificial tanning with tanning beds that emit ultraviolet light.
Check your skin regularly. You can improve your chances of finding pre-cancerous skin conditions, such as actinic keratosis--a dry, scaly, reddish, and slightly raised lesion, and skin cancer by performing simple skin self-exams regularly. The earlier you identify signs and see your clinician, the greater the chances for successful treatment.