If skin cancer is caught early, it can often be treated and cured through a simple surgery.
Be vigilant about checking your skin for moles that appear to change. If a mole grows in size, changes in color, starts itching or bleeding, etc., it’s a good idea to get it checked by a dermatologist.
Meanwhile, do what you can to protect your skin by wearing sunscreen, covering exposed skin with clothing, and avoiding too much sun exposure.
When it comes to skin cancer, awareness and education are important – because everyone has the opportunity to prevent the disease and catch problems early.
“If skin cancers are caught early, they can be treated and cured,” said Dorothy Parish, MSM, PA-C, certified physician assistant with Regional One Health Cancer Care. “You can also take steps to prevent cancer by protecting your skin from UV radiation. You can’t unwind the sun exposure you had when you were younger, but you can avoid adding to it.”
The skin is the body’s largest organ and includes three types of cells: squamous cells in the top layer, which the body constantly replaces; basal cells in the bottom layer; and melanocytes, which contain the pigment that give skin its color.
Cancer can form in each type of cell, Parish said.
Basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma rarely spread beyond the skin. Melanoma can spread to the lymph nodes and then the brain, bones, liver or lungs.
Dorothy Parish, MSM, PA-C, is a physician assistant with Regional One Health Cancer Care. “If skin cancers are caught early, they can be treated and cured,” she said.
Certain physical characteristics put you at a higher risk for skin cancer, including light skin tone, lots of freckles or moles, blond or red hair, and blue or green eyes. Age, family history and personal history also increase risk.
While those risk factors are outside your control, there’s one that isn’t.
“Decreasing exposure to UV rays from the sun, tanning beds, etc. can keep your skin healthy and lower your chances of getting skin cancer, regardless of your other risk factors,” Parish said.
She stressed people with darker skin tones can get skin cancer. The additional melanin in their skin does offer protection, but it’s important to wear sunscreen and check for problem areas.
The biggest symptom Parish hears about from patients is that something on their skin changed – i.e. an existing mole has become bigger or darker, or started itching or bleeding.
For melanoma, she suggests the “ABCDE” test.
If a mole is Asymmetrical, its Border is irregular, its Color is uneven, its Diameter is larger than a pencil eraser, or it is Evolving, get it evaluated.
With basal or squamous cell cancer, a cancerous mole typically looks nodular or raised.
“Not everything is skin cancer – there are a lot of benign lesions as well,” she stressed. “But if you have any concern at all about changes in your skin, get it checked out.”
The only way to know if a lesion is cancerous is to have a biopsy, Parish said.
The best sunscreen is the one you’ll use. Find a lotion or spray with a high SPF that you like, and apply it whenever you’ll be out in the sun.
An excisional biopsy uses a scalpel to remove the entire area of concern. Patients are under local anesthesia and require stitches.
A punch biopsy removes tissue with a tool that punches through the skin, while a shave biopsy uses a razor to shave off a sample. These are less invasive; a shave biopsy doesn’t usually require stitches, but a punch biopsy may depending on the depth of the sample taken.
After the biopsy, tissue is sent to a pathologist. This helps doctors understand whether a patient has cancer and the depth and size of the cancer, both of which are key to guiding treatment.
Since squamous and basal cell carcinomas rarely spread beyond the skin, removal is the only treatment required. Typically, this involves a small incision to remove cancerous tissue.
Patients with melanoma also have their cancer removed, typically with a larger incision. Since melanoma can spread, doctors will also determine whether to biopsy the lymph nodes.
In both cases, treatment is easier and outcomes are better when cancer is caught early.
“Not only can we give you a smaller scar, we can prevent you from having complications and difficult treatments in the future,” Parish said.
Along with being vigilant about checking your skin, take time to protect it!
A dermatologist can help you keep an eye on changes in your skin. If you notice anything new or different, it’s a good idea to ask your doctor to take a look.
If you’re outside, stay in the shade. Wear tightly knit clothing and hats to cover as much skin as possible, and don’t forget sunglasses.
“Complement that by wearing sunscreen as well,” Parish said.
Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before exposure and reapply every 2 hours, especially if you’re swimming or sweating. Check expiration dates – sunscreen loses effectiveness after a few years.
“Use the highest SPF you can find – the higher, the better. I recommend at least SPF 50,” Parish advised, noting it’s a myth that SPF benefits don’t improve after a certain level.
Sprays and lotions are both effective, so it’s a matter of personal preference. “I tell patients the sunscreen you’ll actually wear is the best sunscreen for you,” Parish said.
Patients are often referred to Regional One Health Cancer Care’s skin cancer service by their primary care provider or dermatologist, but they can also make an appointment directly.