Skin Cancer: Types, Symptoms, Causes, Risks, Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention

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examines a mole of male patient regard to skin cancer

1Overview

The skin is the largest organ in the body. It protects the organs inside from external environmental hazards. It also protects the body from the ultraviolet rays of the sun. However, when exposed the sun for prolonged periods, the skin may suffer from free radical damage and eventually, skin cancer.

The skin consists of the two layers, the epidermis, and dermis. Consequently, the skin has many functions including protection, sensation, and regulation. The main function of the skin is to become the body’s barrier against the harmful elements in the environment. It protects the body from pressure, temperature changes, infections caused by pathogens, chemicals, and radiation.

Moreover, the skin is an important organ for the regulation of body temperature, electrolyte, and fluid balance and as a reservoir for vitamin D synthesis.

The outer layer or epidermis are made of basal cells, melanocytes, and squamous cells. The cells affected by cancer are the type of cancer a person has.

Every year, more than 5.4 million cases of nonmelanoma skin cancer are being treated and managed in the United States.

About 90 percent of all nonmelanoma skin cancers have been linked to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the incidence of skin cancer has been steadily increasing over the past decades, and about 2 to 3 million nonmelanomas and 132,000 melanoma have been reported across the globe every year.

One of the main reasons why the cases are increasing is the depletion of the ozone layer, which protects the Earth from the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun. The atmosphere loses its protective function of filtering out solar radiation. For every 10 percent decrease in the ozone layer accounts for an additional 300,000 basal and squamous skin cancers and about 4,500 melanoma skin cancer.

2Types of Skin Cancer

Basal and Squamous Cell Cancer

Basal and squamous cell cancer affects the parts of the body most exposed to the sun such as the head, arms, and neck. However, these cancer cells can occur anywhere. Basal cell cancer is the most common type of skin cancer and usually develop in people with fair skin. On the other hand, squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer.

People who are exposed to the sun frequently or those who are fond of using indoor tanning beds are the ones at a higher risk of developing this type of cancer.

Melanoma

Melanoma is the deadliest type of skin cancer. This type of skin cancer usually develops in a mole, or it appears as a dark spot on the skin. Early detection is important because if it’s diagnosed in the last stages, the prognosis is poor.

Every hour, one person dies from melanoma in the United States. About 87,110 new cases of invasive melanoma are expected to be diagnosed in the country in 2017. Moreover, approximately 9,730 people will die of this type of skin cancer in 2017.

3Symptoms

The symptoms of skin cancer depend on the type of cancer you have.

Basal Cell Cancer

Basal cancer lesions are:

  • Smooth and pearly
  • Reddish lumps
  • Look waxy and appear firm
  • Has some bleeding
  • Can heal but not completely
  • Itchy
  • Develop into a painless ulcer
  • Develop a scab

Squamous Cell Cancer

Squamous cell cancers look like:

  • Scaly
  • Hard and horny cap
  • Raised skin
  • Tender to touch
  • Bleeding

Melanoma

Melanoma skin cancer has:

  • Sore that does not heal
  • Spread of the pigment of the mole or black spot into surrounding skin
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Change in sensation
  • Itchiness, pain, and tenderness
  • Change in an existing mole

4Causes

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, and the number steadily increases over time. Many researchers believe that cancer develops as a result of genetic mutations in the normal cells. As a result, there is an uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells, and this growth leads to the formation of tumors.

One of the most believed causes of skin cancer is the exposure to the ultraviolet rays of the sun. Aside from the sun, the radiation present in tanning beds has been linked to the development of skin cancer too. Exposure to the sun during the winter months or even indoors have the same risks as those exposed during the summer.

5Risk Factors

The risk factors increase your chance of developing skin cancer, and they include:

The family history of skin cancer

Most cases of nonmelanoma and melanoma skin cancers do not run in families. However, having a family history of skin cancer in the family may predispose a person to the same type of cancer.

Having fair skin

Regardless of color, anyone can develop skin cancer. However, having a fair skin predisposes a person to skin cancer. This is because having less melanin, the brown pigment in the skin gives you less protection from the damaging effects of the UV rays. Melanin protects the skin and lets the UV rays bounce off the skin.

History of frequent sunburns

Having frequent sunburns from exposure to the sun increases your risk of developing skin cancer.

Too much exposure to the sun

Most skin cancers are linked to the excessive exposure to the sun. Long term exposure or intense short-term exposure may increase your risk of skin cancer.

Sunny places or high-altitude climates

People who live in sunny or tropical locations are at a greater risk of skin cancer. Consequently, people living in higher altitudes or mountains are more prone to developing skin cancer.

Moles

People with many moles are at a heightened risk of developing skin cancer. Moreover, people with abnormal moles have an increased risk. These moles are more likely to turn cancerous and may increase in diameter affecting the surrounding skin.

Personal History of Skin Cancer

 People who have been previously treated for skin cancer are more likely to have a relapse of the disease.

The other risk factors include those with blue, green or hazel eyes, people with light-colored hair, tendency to burn rather than sun tan, and those with many freckles or dark spots.

6Diagnosis

Aside from a complete physical examination and a complete health history taking, the only way to diagnose skin cancer is through biopsy. This involves taking skin samples, and the tissue is examined under a microscope.

A dermatologist or pathologist is tasked to examine the skin cells if they have undergone mutation or changes in their DNA that could change normal and healthy skin cells to malignant and cancerous.

The doctor may also require some tests to examine the extent of the spread of cancer. Blood tests, X-rays and imaging tests may be prescribed.

Sometimes, even the scraping of cancer cells from the skin may treat cancer altogether. However, malignant tissue or skin cells may need further treatment.

7Treatment

The treatment for basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma may include the surgical removal of the lesion. However, when it comes to melanoma or malignant melanoma, the treatment may require various treatment methods like surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation therapy.

Other types of treatment include Mohs surgery which involves the excision of the cancerous lesion and some surrounding lesion. Another treatment procedure includes electrodesiccation and curettage which involves the scraping of the skin cancer cells and followed by electro surgery. Other types include cryosurgery or the freezing of the cancer cells, laser therapy and chemotherapy drugs.

The treatment of cancer depends on the stage at which it has been diagnosed. Early stages of skin cancer may have a good prognosis compared to a cancer that has reached the advanced stages. Moreover, the treatment depends on the severity of the lesion.

8Prevention

Nothing can undo sun damage even though the skin can repair itself. As the famous adage goes, prevention is better than cure. Avoiding all the preventable risk factors may help you reduce the risk of having skin cancer even if you have a family history or a personal history of the illness. Here are ways to prevent the development of skin cancer including:

  • Avoid the sun during the middle of the day. The sun rays are the strongest between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., so schedule outdoor activities before or after this time frame.
  • Apply sunscreen with a sun protection factor of 15 or more, about half an hour before sun exposure. Reapply after a few hours after that.
  • Avoiding sun exposure may help prevent exposure to the sun. However, indoor tanning beds or just staying indoors can also predispose you to sun exposure. Sun exposure which is accumulated over time may also cause skin cancer.
  • Choose cosmetic products that are offering UV protection.
  • Use eyeglasses and sunglasses that also offer UV protection.
  • Observe your skin for lesions, abnormally-looking moles, and new growths.
  • Wear protective clothing, especially if you’re going under the sun. Choose light clothes that cover your arms and legs. Also, use wide-brimmed hat which can provide more protection on the face.
  • Avoid tanning beds.
  • Taking care of the skin is important especially if you are always exposed to the sun.