As spring comes to a close, and summer approaches with promises of short sleeves and 80 degree weather, most of us can’t wait to get outside for some fun in the sun. While soaking up some vitamin D can have numerous health benefits such as lowering high blood pressure and improving brain function, basking in those golden rays for too long can increase your risk of skin cancer.
Skin cancer, or the abnormal growth of skin cells, most often develops on skin exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. But it can also affect areas that usually remain covered. Routinely checking your skin for suspicious growths or changes—especially during the summer months—can help you detect the cancer in its early stages when it’s most treatable, giving you the best chances at a full recovery.
Types of cancer
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the US than all other cancers combined. The three most common forms of skin cancer are melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma. Each form carries a different set of signs and symptoms, as well as varying levels of severity and treatment options. Here’s what you need to know about each type and how to spot it before it’s too late.
The most dangerous form of skin cancer, melanoma occurs when skin pigment cells called melanocytes mutate and become cancerous. While affected pigment cells are usually found in the skin, melanoma can also occur in the eyes and other parts of the body, including the intestines in rare cases. Though it is less common than basal cell and squamous cancers, melanoma is dangerous because it is more likely to spread, or metastasize, if left untreated.
The disease most often appears as an atypical mole that adheres to the ABCDE rule, which dictates that the mole must be asymmetrical, unevenly or irregularly bordered, abnormally colored, large in diameter, or evolving in appearance over time. While melanoma usually causes the atypical mole, it can also occur within an already existing mole. It is commonly treated by surgical removal of the melanoma and a small margin of normal skin around it, but more advanced cases may need radiation, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, or chemotherapy.
Basal cell carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma occurs when abnormal, uncontrolled growths or lesions arise in the skin’s basal cells, which line the deepest layer of the epidermis. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, it is the most frequently occurring form of all cancers, with more than four million cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year. Despite its prevalence, basal cell carcinoma is the least dangerous of all the skin cancers, as the condition rarely spreads or becomes life-threatening.
Basal cell carcinoma often appears in the form of open sores, red patches, pink growths, or shiny bumps or scars, and is usually caused by a combination of cumulative and intense, occasional exposure to the sun.
Squamous cell carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common form of skin cancer, and is usually found on areas of the body that have been damaged by UV rays from the sun or tanning beds. These areas can include the head, neck, chest, upper back, and extremities. Though it is a fairly slow-growing skin cancer, it can spread to your tissues, bones, and nearby lymph nodes, where it becomes difficult to treat. The disease begins as a dome-shaped bump or a red, scaly patch of skin that may itch or hurt and bleeds easily when scratched.
While overexposure to sun is the main cause of squamous cell carcinoma, certain factors make you more likely to develop the disease, such as old age, fair skin, having blue, green, or gray eyes, long-term exposure to chemicals like arsenic, or various diseases such as HPV or HIV/AIDS.
Most forms of skin cancer are not only curable, but preventable. Wearing sunscreen (even year-round!), protective clothing, or staying out of the sun’s rays when they’re at their strongest can help you avoid skin cancer. But if you notice any suspicious changes to your skin, you should check with your doctor immediately.