The word Melanoma concept and theme written in vintage wooden letterpress type on a grunge background.

As we head deeper into summer, remember that while getting out in the sun can be fun and beneficial, you need to protect yourself from harmful rays to help prevent skin cancer. You’re likely aware of the basics: always wear sunscreen, stay in the shade when possible, and steer clear of tanning beds. However, another essential is to do skin checks.

So, how important are skin checks? What do you look for? And when do you seek treatment?

What Is Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer is the growth of abnormal cells on the skin. The two main causes are the ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun and the use of UV tanning beds.

Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are the two most common types of skin cancer. Both start in the top layer of skin. Basal cell carcinoma, which accounts for about 80% of all skin cancer diagnoses, rarely spreads to other parts of the body. Melanoma, a squamous cell cancer that accounts for about 1% of all skin cancers, develops when melanocytes – the cells that give color to the skin – mutate within existing moles or form new moles. Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer because it has a tendency to spread.

“Although skin cancer is more common in light-skinned people, it’s important to note that people with darker skin types may also develop skin cancer,” says Naomi Lawrence, MD, dermatologic surgeon at Cooper University Health Care. “The good news is, when caught early, skin cancer is highly treatable.”

Know the Signs of Skin Cancer

Unlike most cancers, skin cancer is visible on the outside of the body. That’s why skin exams, at home and with your doctor, are essential. With regular checkups, your dermatologist may detect a growth at a precancerous stage.

Skin cancers can be tricky because you may think they are just small cuts, pimples, or patches of eczema. Be on the lookout for the following:

  • An open sore that doesn’t heal
  • A flesh-colored, pearl-like bump
  • A reddish or irritated patch of skin
  • A scar-like area that is flat white or yellow
  • Scaly patches that crust and occasionally bleed
  • A wart-like growth that crusts and occasionally bleeds

A mole is a common type of skin growth that is usually pigmented. Most existing moles will never cause any problems, but some can develop a melanoma. Conversely, a new, pigmented growth may be the sign of a melanoma. Any mole that changes size, shape, or color might be the first sign of a melanoma and should prompt a visit to your dermatologist.

Skin cancer is usually found on skin that has been exposed to the most sun, such as the face, scalp, arms, back, or legs. However, melanoma can be found anywhere on the body, which is why skin checks are critical to getting ahead of skin cancer. Self-checks should be done once a month. Full-body exams are best, and should include the scalp, in between toes, the soles of your feet, and under the breasts.

Know the ABCs

The ABCDE chart for moles can help you determine if a mole or spot may indicate melanoma or other skin cancer:

  • Asymmetrical shape: Irregular shape, not round or oval
  • Border: Notched, scalloped, or jagged borders
  • Color: Uneven color or multiple colors within the same mole
  • Diameter: Larger than 1/4 inch or the size of a pencil eraser
  • Evolving: Change in size, shape, color, or height; also new signs and symptoms, such as itchiness, tenderness, or bleeding; or non-healing sores

Skin biopsies are performed by a dermatologist right in the office, usually as soon as the spot is discovered. The procedure is quick and with a minimum amount of pain. The sample is sent to a lab for testing and your doctor will follow up within a few weeks to discuss the results.

How to Protect Yourself

“The simple answer is stay out of the sun,” Dr. Lawrence says. “UV radiation is the main carcinogen for skin cancers, so the most important thing you can do is to protect yourself from the sun and UV rays. And not just in summer, but year-round.”

Dr. Lawrence offers the following skin cancer prevention tips:

  • Use a broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher and remember to reapply frequently throughout the day.
  • Keep newborns out of the sun. Sunscreens can be used on babies older than six months.
  • Avoid tanning, and never use UV tanning beds.
  • Seek the shade, especially between 10:00am and 4:00pm, when the sun’s UV rays are the strongest.
  • Examine your skin head-to-toe every month.
  • See a dermatologist annually for a professional skin exam.

Source: Cooper University Health

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