Skin cancer is a type of cancer that develops from malignant growths on the skin. Unlike other forms of cancer, skin cancer can usually spotted in the early stages because clearly visible tumours develop on the skin. Despite this it is still one of the most common cancers with the NHS claiming that it affects 60,000 people each year.
Although there are different types of skin cancer (which I will be discussing below), the associated risk factors are very similar for all types. They include:
1) ULTRAVIOLET (UV) LIGHT:- Excessive exposure to ultraviolet light is believed to be the leading cause of skin cancer. This is because the radiation found in UV waves causes mutations in our skin cells over time which ultimately become cancerous. Staying out in the sun too long and using tanning beds regularly are two common ways that people become overly exposed to UV light.
2) SKIN TYPE:- Black or brown skinned people rarely contract skin cancer because the melanin pigment in their skin protects them from UV rays. Fair skinned people (especially those who go red or freckle in the sun) have an increased risk of developing skin cancer because their skin offers little protection from UV rays.
3) GENETICS:- Having two or more close family members that developed skin cancer is believed to increase your risk of developing the condition too. Furthermore, having the following genetic characteristics is believed to increase your risk of contracting skin cancer:
– Blonde or red hair.
– Blue eyes.
– Large number of freckles.
– Large number of moles.
4) EXPOSURE TO CHEMICALS:- The following chemicals are believed to cause skin cancer in rare cases:
– Coal tar.
– Paraffin Waxes.
– Petroleum Derivatives.
– Hair Dye.
The above risk factors are thought to make you more likely to contract any type of skin cancer. There are two main forms of skin cancer; Non-Melanoma (which includes basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma) and Malignant Melanoma. Non-melanoma is the most common of the two (accounting for over 90% of all skin cancers) but malignant melanoma is the most serious:
1) BASAL CELL CARCINOMA (BCC):- This is a non-melanoma type of skin cancer. It develops in the basal cells of the epidermis (the outermost layer of the skin) and is believed to account for more than 75% of all skin cancers in the UK. Most cases of BCC are slow growing and do not spread. However, if not treated BCC can damage the skin leading to the development of an ulcer (known as ‘rodent ulcer’).
BCC can develop on any part of the skin but typically appears in any area that has been exposed to the sun such as; the arms, the legs and the face. It usually appears as a small spot on the skin which can have a number of characteristics include:
– Scaly appearance.
– Smooth, pearly appearance.
2) SQUAMOUS CELL CARCINOMA (SCC):- This is a non-melanoma type of skin cancer. It develops in the squamous cells of the epidermis and is believed to account for 15% to 20% of all skin cancers in the UK. SCC is generally not dangerous if treated. However, if left untreated for a long period it can spread to other areas of the body.
SCC can also develop all over the skin but is most likely to appear in areas that are typically exposed to the sun such as; the arms, the legs and the face. SCC usually appears in the form of either:
– A hard, red lump.
– A flat, scaly, crusted area (similar to a scab).
3) MALIGNANT MELANOMA:- This is a type of skin cancer that develops from skin cells called melanocytes (which produce melanin and lead to the development of a long lasting tan). It is believed to account for less than 10% of all skin cancers in the UK. Unlike non-melanoma skin cancer, malignant melanoma is very dangerous if not treated early and is responsible for the majority of skin cancer deaths.
Malignant melanomas usually develop on the arms, back, legs and face. The first sign of possible malignant melanoma is a change in the appearance of one of your existing moles or the development of an entirely new mole. Normal moles are the same colour all over, small (less than 6 millimetres (mm) in diameter) and oval shaped. However, malignant melanomas will usually exhibit one or more of the following characteristics:
– Bleeding and/or discharge.
– Different colours/shades (which can include brown, black blue or orange).
– Large size (over 6mm in diameter).
– Ragged edges.
– Uneven appearance.
If you notice any of the above signs, any other irregularities on your skin or any changes in your skin that do not disappear within a month you should go and see your doctor immediately. Skin blemishes or new moles are not always cancerous but it is always worth taking the time to check. Successful treatment of skin cancer (especially malignant melanoma) depends largely on early detection which your doctor can provide. Upon seeing your doctor and explaining your concerns they will then be able to do some further tests for skin cancer. These tests include:
1) VISUAL EXAM:- Since skin cancer is externally visible (unlike the majority of other cancers) your doctor will first look at the affected areas for any suspected tumours. If any potential skin cancer is identified your doctor will then refer you to a dermatologist for a biopsy.
2) BIOPSY:- A biopsy is a process where a sample of tissues is taken from the affected area of the skin to be further examined for cancerous cells. As skin cancer tumours are usually smaller than other types of tumour the biopsy can sometimes be used to remove the entire tumour, acting as both a test and treatment for skin cancer.
3) FURTHER TESTS:- If the results of the biopsy suggest that the skin cancer may have spread to other areas of your body, your doctor may schedule further tests. These tests can include; blood tests, CT scans, MRI scans and X-rays. You can read more about them in my other cancer articles.
If any of the above tests reveal that you have skin cancer and it could not be fully removed during the biopsy then you will require further treatment. The various treatments for skin cancer are discussed below:
1) SURGERY:- This is the main type of treatment for skin cancer. Small tumours can usually be removed under local anaesthetic. Larger tumours may require a skin graft (where a layer of healthy skin is taken from another part of the body to replace the skin that was removed during surgery). If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes (glands which help the body dispose of unwanted bacteria) or there is a risk that it will, nearby lymph nodes may also be removed using surgery.
2) RADIOTHERAPY:- Radiotherapy involves aiming high levels of radiation at the cancerous cells to kill or shrink them. It is often used as an alternative to surgery to avoid scarring when treating BCC and SCC and it can be very effective. Radiotherapy is sometimes used after surgery if it is believed there is a risk the cancer cells may return.
3) CHEMOTHERAPY:- Chemotherapy involves using anti-cancer medications to kill or shrink the cancerous cells. It is rarely used to treat skin cancer but when it is used this is usually in the form of a cream or injection, both of which are applied to the affectied area.
4) CRYOTHERAPY:- Cryotherapy involves freezing the affected tissues using liquid nitrogen. This causes the are of skin cancer to scab over and after about a month this scab falls off the skin. Cryotherapy is generally used to treat skin cancers that are in the early stages.
5) PHOTODYNAMIC THERAPY (PDT):- This is a relatively new type of treatment which involves applying a cream that makes the affected area very sensitive to light. After applying the cream a strong light is then shone on the cancerous cells to kill them.
Skin cancer treatments generally have very high success rates. According to Cancer Backup 90% of people treated for BCC and SCC are completely cured. However, it is much better if you never let the skin cancer reach this stage in the first place by taking the following preventative action:
1) AVOID OVER EXPOSURE TO SUNLIGHT:- The sun should not be avoided altogether. Sunlight does have a number of benefits to the human body including promoting the production of vitamin D. However, you do need to be careful when out in the sun and moderate your exposure. If you are going to be out in the sun all day make sure there are shaded areas that you can pop into regularly. This will help you avoid constant exposure to the sunlight.
2) APPLY SUNSCREEN:- Sunscreen can help block damaging UV rays from reaching your skin, reducing your risk of skin cancer developing. You should apply it around 15 minutes before going out into the sun and make sure to re-apply regularly (based on the packet instructions).
3) DRESS FOR THE SUN:- If you are going to be out in the sun for long periods then make sure you wear the appropriate gear. Although you may be tempted to go shirtless in an effort to top up your tan it is important to have a suitable top with you and to wear it some of the time in order to protect the skin on your back and front. Perhaps, try alternating 30 minutes shirtless and 30 minutes with a top on. It is also advisable to bring sunglasses and a sun hat to protect your eyes and face.
4) TAN GRADUALLY:- If you are determined to get a tan then make sure you do it gradually. If you go on holiday then spend just 20 or 30 minutes in the sun on day 1 and then gradually increase your daily exposure by 5 or 10 minutes. This will help you avoid sunburn which significantly increases the chance of your cells mutating and skin cancer developing.
5) AVOID SUNBEDS:- Sunbeds use concentrated UV rays to help you tan and because of this they are more dangerous than natural sunlight. If you really want to tan then do it naturally and gradually or even better use tanning products such as spray tan or tanning cream.
Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK and worldwide. The reason behind this is believed to be the increased number of people taking holidays to hot, sunny locations and the increased obsessiveness with getting a healthy tan. Although it is generally a treatable form of cancer, you should make it your aim to prevent any cancer where possible. Skin cancer is largely preventable and I hope this article has shown you can reduce your risk.
Whilst every intention has been made to make this article accurate and informative, it is intended for general information only. Skin cancer is a very serious, life threatening condition and you should discuss any concerns, treatments or lifestyle changes fully with your doctor.