As a child, you probably never suspected that carefree days spent sunning and swimming could be a prelude to skin cancer. But those hours outdoors elevated your risk of developing skin cancer today. Experts estimate that by age 18, youâ€™ve accumulated 85% of your lifetime exposure to ultraviolet rays.
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, diagnosed in more than one million Americans each year. Skin cancer causes about 10,000 deaths annually. Most are from melanoma, the most severe form of skin cancer, which has become far more common in recent decades as people have spent more leisure time outdoors. In most cases, skin cancer is not fatal, but it can be disfiguring. The good news is that with early detection and treatment, more than 90% of cases can be cured. The three major types of skin cancer are described below.
Three kinds of skin cancer
Squamous cell cancer: Begins in the middle layer of the epidermis and affects only the surrounding area, but eventually forms a raised patch with a rough surface.
Basal cell cancer: The cells of this type of cancer resemble the cells in the lowest layer of the epidermis, the basal layer. The cells invade and destroy surrounding tissues, forming a painless bump or nodule that later becomes an open ulcer with a hard edge.
Malignant melanoma: The deadliest form of skin cancer occurs when melanocytes, pigment-making cells in the basal layer or in surface moles, begin reproducing uncontrollably, spreading to distant parts of the body.
The most benign form of skin cancer â€” and the least likely to spread to other parts of the body â€” is basal cell carcinoma. Itâ€™s also the most common form, accounting for about 80% of cases. Basal cell carcinoma originates in basal cells located deep in the epidermis. The most common cause of this cancer is cumulative damage from sun exposure. A basal cell carcinoma may first appear as a pearly pimple or bump, a white- or yellow-colored scar, or a scaly red patch. Some basal cell cancers appear as an ulcer that wonâ€™t heal. Basal cell cancer is very slow-growing, and will not develop into the potentially fatal melanoma. Sunscreens do not protect against basal cell carcinoma, according to one large long-term study on the subject. The reason is not yet understood.
Symptoms of basal cell carcinoma
Another 16% of skin cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. This form of cancer arises from flat, scale-like cells in the epidermis. Although squamous cell cancer usually isnâ€™t fatal, it can be life-threatening if it spreads to lymph nodes or internal organs. But even then, the cure rate is around 50%. Four times more men than women develop squamous cell carcinoma. It usually starts as a small, scaly bump and grows slowly until it resembles an ulcer or wart. Squamous cell cancers frequently occur on the face, lips, ears, or backs of the hands, and they too result from cumulative sun damage. Early detection is key to preventing the spread of squamous cell cancer. Like basal cell cancer, it will not develop into melanoma. Long-term sunscreen use reduces the risk of squamous cell carcinoma by about 35%, according to one large study.
|Symptoms of squamous cell carcinoma|
Melanoma is a form of cancer that originates in the melanocytes, cells deep in the epidermis or in surface moles that produce pigment. Each year, malignant melanoma is diagnosed in about 45,000 Americans. Although it accounts for only 4% of cases of skin cancer, itâ€™s responsible for more than 75% of all skin cancer deaths. Without early detection and treatment, it can spread (metastasize) to the lymph nodes and internal organs. The lungs and liver are common targets when melanoma spreads. Its incidence has risen dramatically, from 1 in 5,000 in 1930, to about 1 in 65 in 2004.
Melanoma has several distinguishing characteristics that experts call the ABCDs of melanoma. These are asymmetry, meaning that each half of the growth looks different from the other; border irregularity, in which the edges are ragged or blurry; color thatâ€™s unusual; and a diameter that exceeds 6 mm, about that of a pencil eraser. In general, experts recommend that any mole or growth that has enlarged or changed in any way be examined by a dermatologist.
Symptoms of melanoma
Look for the ABCDs:
A for asymmetry
B for border irregularity
C for color: various shades of tan, brown, blue, or black
D for diameter: the width of a pencil eraser or larger (can be smaller in early stages)
Melanoma survival rates are good â€” 95% or higher if the tumor is less than 1 mm thick. But beyond 4 mm in thickness, the cure rate drops to 45%. As with most other forms of cancer, if the tumor has spread to distant organs, overall survival is lower, about 18%.
Time and sun are tough on your skin, and troublesome skin conditions can set in at any age. But skin treatments have changed dramatically in recent years. Skin Care and Repair, a special report from Harvard Medical School, explains the latest high-tech solutions and drug regimens available to control both cosmetic and medical skin problemsâ€”from age-related wrinkles to life-threatening cancers.