What You Need To Know About Skin Cancer
Every year, millions of people face the reality of cancer on the largest organ of their bodies – the skin. Yet, this vital organ remains one of the most ignored. Since it’s skin cancer awareness month, let’s review the basics to help you track the health of your skin!
What is skin cancer?
Our skin consists of different layers – the epidermis, dermis, and subcutis. In each layer, there are different cells, such as melanocytes (pigment cells) and sweat glands. Skin cancer occurs when a group of abnormal cells develop due to irreparable DNA damage and form malignant tumours that invade your surrounding healthy tissue or other body parts.
It's critical to know which type of skin cancer you have because it affects your treatment options and chances of recovery or recurrence. There are different skin cancer types, each depending on the layer they occur in. For example, cancer in the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin) is called basal cell carcinoma. This form of cancer typically develops anywhere on the skin but is usually considered very treatable.
Cancer in squamous cells, or the outer lining of cells that form the skin's top surface, is called squamous cell carcinoma and make up for 20% of this disease. It usually occurs on the lips, including areas of skin surrounding the mouth, at sites of long-standing scars, as well as the scalp, and the backs of your hands.
Lastly, cancer in the melanocyte cells, where the epidermis meets the dermis, is termed as melanoma. The melanocyte cells are responsible for the production of the pigment melanin, which gives skin its colour. As such, melanoma commonly appears in spots that may be mottled with various colours such as brown, black, blue, red, white, or light grey.
The most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, also known as ‘non-melanoma skin cancer.’ Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer, though it is not as common as basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas.
Anyone can develop skin cancer. However, certain factors increase your risk of developing skin cancer. These include personal and lifestyle factors.
The following are examples of personal factors;
- A history of skin cancer in the family
- Fair skin. This is because those with fair skin have less melanin, which is the protective pigment against ultraviolet rays
- Old age
- Rare diseases such as Xeroderma pigmentosum – a disorder characterized by high sensitivity to UV rays
- Precancers such as actinic keratosis, which are essentially abnormal cell growth as a result of long-term damage from the sun. These growths are not always cancerous, but a small fraction of them have the ability to develop into skin cancer
- A history of human papillomavirus (HPV)
Examples of lifestyle factors include;
- Chronic exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and tanning beds
- Exposure to certain carcinogens
- Long-term exposure to drugs that suppress the immune system or immunosuppressive agents
Signs and symptoms of skin cancer
In the early stages of development, there are no skin cancer symptoms. However, as the disease progresses, the signs of skin cancer will soon make itself known in terms of irregular pigmentation on patches of your skin that steadily change or enlarge. Skin cancer may also appear in the form of moles, scaling, crust, and broken skin on sun exposed areas. So, be sure to treat your red bumps, open sores, and shiny bumps as a result of these exposures with reasonable caution.
In the case of melanoma, your certain spots or areas of the skin may vary in colour – sometimes appearing black, dark brown, pink, white, red, blue, or purple. If you notice any changes in your skin, including changes in the colour, shape, and size of long-standing moles, immediately consult an expert for a checkup.
Skin cancer prevention tips
Cumulative exposure to harmful ultraviolet rays is the leading cause of skin cancer. Therefore, avoiding exposure to UV rays is key to reducing your risk of skin cancer. Prolonged exposure to UV rays occurs when you’re under the sun for too long without adequate protection, tanning both under the sun and in tanning salons.
Fortunately, you can reduce damage to your skin by keeping to solid skin protection strategies. Firstly, make sure to apply sunblock daily, especially when you know you’re going to be under the sun for long hours. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to apply sun protection on cloudy days or when you’re staying indoors. If your home has lots of windows or if you spend lots of time facing your screens, you're probably also exposing yourself to potentially skin-damaging blue light from the smart devices and UV rays for the sun. Naturally, your risks to skin cancer are significantly lower indoors, but it’s still better to be safe than sorry! While people of colour are less likely to develop skin cancer because they have more of the protective pigment – or melanin, they are still at risk of getting skin cancer. Therefore, applying sunscreen regularly is recommended for everyone. When purchasing your sunscreen, make sure to check for an adequate sun protection factor (SPF). A higher factor means better protection against UVA and UVB rays.
In addition, avoid tanning entirely due its harmful nature, and wear protective clothing if you have to go out in the sun. Finally, remember to inspect your skin regularly and visit the doctor for frequent medical screening examinations – especially if your family has a history of skin cancer.
How is skin cancer diagnosed?
To determine whether you have abnormal growths, your doctor will first perform a dermoscopy. This procedure is a detailed physical inspection of your scalp, ears, hands, feet, genitals, and buttocks with the help of a handheld instrument called a dermatoscope to identify skin lesions that have a high likelihood of being malignant.
To confirm if your growths are cancerous, your doctor will ask for a biopsy, which is a microscopic examination of the sample tissue from your lesions. The results will help determine if your lesions are cancerous.
Skin cancer treatments include both surgery and non-surgery options. During surgical treatments, your cancerous cells and surrounding tissue are surgically removed. The skin is then replaced with follow-up skin grafting or skin flap surgery.
There are also non-surgical treatments such as Cryotherapy. This method includes the application of liquid nitrogen on a tumour to kill cells. Other techniques from this treatment option are Photodynamic therapy, which combines the use of drugs and light energy to destroy abnormal cells, and Topical chemotherapy that uses drugs like Fluorouracil to treat pre-cancerous lesions such as actinic keratoses, as well as superficial basal cell carcinomas, and squamous cell carcinomas.
Just like the lungs or kidneys, our skin is also a vital organ. Good skincare and checkups are essential to maintain healthy, glowing skin. If you have more concerns about skin cancer, be sure to visit your local doctor!