Despite prolific media coverage of the dangers posed by exposure to ultraviolet rays, skin cancer rates have steadily risen over the past three decades, making it the most common of all cancer types. This year alone, the American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that there will be more than 68,000 new cases of malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, and over two million new cases of basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers in the United States.
"Knowledge about wearing sunscreen doesn't necessarily translate to effective use," says Vilma Cokkinides, PhD., strategic director of risk factors for the ACS. Studies suggest that reasons sunscreens fail include under-application and prolonged outdoor stays, as well as neglecting to practice other sun-safe behaviors like wearing protective clothing and staying in the shade.
As a consequence, approximately 8,700 Americans are expected to die of melanoma this year, and about 2,000 people will die from non-melanoma skin cancers, according to the ACS. A key component of avoiding these dire outcomes (as well as surgical removal of tissue and lymph nodes, or chemotherapy) is early diagnoses, followed by treatment before the cancer can spread.
Need a little help determining what might be a bad bump, mole or mark? Here are a few top tips for what to watch out for:
The most important warning signs include new spots, spots that are changing in size, shape or color and spots that look different from the rest of the spots on your skin.
The ACS also advises using the ABCD rule:
• Asymmetry: Half of a spot doesn't match the other.
• Border: The edges are irregular, ragged, notched or blurred.
• Color: The color isn't the same all over and may include patches of brown, black, pink, red, white or blue.
• Diameter: The spot is larger than about a quarter-inch, or the size of a pencil eraser.
Have your skin checked by a dermatologist if you experience any of these warning signs or any other changes to your skin. Other melanoma symptoms may include: a sore that doesn't heal; a change in sensation, such as itchiness, tenderness or pain; and a change in a mole's surface, such as a scale-like appearance, oozing or bleeding or the appearance of a bump or nodule.
Basal & Squamous
According to the ACS, these cancers are most often found in areas that get a lot of sun, such as the head, neck and arms, but they can occur anywhere. Keep an eye out for new growths, spots, bumps, patches or sores that don't heal after two to three months.
Basal cell carcinomas often look like flat, firm pale areas or small, raised, pink or red, translucent, shiny, waxy areas that may bleed after a minor injury. They might have abnormal blood vessels, a lower area in their center and/or blue, brown or black areas. Large ones may have oozing or crusted areas.
Squamous cell carcinomas can look like growing lumps, often with a rough, scaly or crusted surface. They may also appear as flat reddish patches that grow slowly.
Also known as solar keratosis, this is the most common form of precancerous skin lesion. Evidence of sun or tanning booth damage, they are typically smaller than a quarter-inch, crusty or scaly, and pink-red or flesh-colored. Dry and rough to the touch, occasionally they can itch, burn or bleed. Because it can grow into squamous cell cancer, you should definitely have any suspicious areas checked out by a doctor.
Fortunately, although skin cancer may be the most common form of cancer, it is also one of the most preventable, says Perry Robins, MD, president of the Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF). "If you follow our simple guidelines, you can enjoy the outdoors and still keep your skin healthy."
Check out the SCF website (SkinCancer.org) for more tips and to see if their fourth annual Road to Healthy Skin Tour, presented by Aveeno and Rite Aid, is coming to a town near you. From March 11 to September 17, the Tour's 38-foot customized RV will make an estimated 85 stops in 25 states, providing free full-body skin exams by local volunteer dermatologists.