By Michael Leslie, MD, PhD
As May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, I would like to take this opportunity to encourage each and every one of you to take a moment for self-care. With our hectic lifestyles and numerous obligations, it is easy to overlook the importance of a routine skin exam or push it off to a later date. Unfortunately, one in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer during their lifetime. Colorado’s high elevation and over 300 days of sunshine lead to greater exposure of intense ultraviolet (UV) radiation, putting Coloradans at even greater risk of developing skin cancer.
Skin Cancer Statistics
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States and affects people of all ages and skin tones. Approximately 9,500 cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each day. Because it is a visible cancer, dermatologists can often detect skin cancer with the naked eye. A dermatoscope, a handheld magnifying device, is often used when diagnosing earlier stages of disease. Skin cancer most commonly occurs in sun exposed areas of the body but can develop anywhere on the skin including the lips, genitalia, or under the nails. Therefore, it is important that your dermatologist performs a thorough skin exam covering all areas of the body from the scalp to the bottoms of your feet.
Skin Cancer Detection
The good news is, that when caught early and treated appropriately, skin cancer is highly curable. If a concerning spot is found during your skin exam, your dermatologist will complete a simple in-office skin biopsy. The biopsy will be sent to a laboratory where a specially trained dermatopathologist will confirm the diagnosis under the microscope.
Treatment of Skin Cancer – Basal Cell Carcinoma, Squamous Cell Carcinoma, Melanoma
The main types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Melanoma is less common, but more likely to spread to other parts of the body if left untreated. When caught early, a simple excision of the skin cancer often results in complete removal of the cancer and a low chance of recurrence.
When skin cancer is diagnosed at a later stage or is left untreated, the cancer is likely to be more advanced, spreading beyond the original site. More aggressive treatment will be required and may result in nerve damage, loss of function, or severe deformity. Advanced cases of all skin cancers can result in metastasis and even death.
Squamous cell carcinoma afflicts more than 1 million Americans annually, resulting in more than 15,000 deaths each year. It is estimated that more than 100,000 cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in the United States this year alone, resulting in nearly 7,000 deaths. Therefore, early detection and prevention are paramount in protecting oneself against skin cancer.
Preventing Skin Cancer
The most preventable cause of skin cancer is overexposure to UV radiation. Exposure to UV radiation from the sun or artificial sources increases one’s risk of developing all types of skin cancer. It is recommended that you protect yourself while outdoors by wearing a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and UV protective clothing. A broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher should be applied to all exposed skin. While indoors, it is advised to avoid all artificial sunlamps and tanning beds. Regular skin self-exams are also recommended for those at higher risk of skin cancer.
ABCDEs of Melanoma
In honor of Skin Cancer Awareness month, I want to encourage you take a moment to examine your own skin. A new growth, a sore that doesn’t heal, a changing mole, or observing the ABCDE’s of melanoma (Asymmetry, irregular Border, uneven Color, large Diameter, and Evolution) are indicators that you should immediately schedule an appointment with your Dermatologist. Skin cancer is extremely common, but highly treatable. Thus, it is imperative to catch it early to ensure a successful outcome.