by Robert Hayden, DC, PhD, FICC
When I was younger, I enjoyed being in the sun. The warmth on my skin felt good, and I liked having a tan. In fact, I once had a friendly competition with a fraternity brother who had a mixed racial genetic makeup to see if I could get as dark as he was by the end of the summer. I came close several times, and we’d laugh about it.
The price for that friendly competition is that about every two years now I go to my dermatologist to have something cut off and sent to a lab for analysis. The damaging ultraviolet rays that I absorbed caused some chromosomal damage, particularly on my head, even when I had hair. Since summer is upon us, this seems like a timely topic.
Each year, about a million Americans learn that they have skin cancer—the most common type of cancer in the United States. Approximately 40-50% of Americans who live to age 65 will have skin cancer at least once in their lifetimes. The risk is greatest for people who have fair skin that freckles easily—often those with red or blond hair and blue or light-colored eyes—although everyone can develop skin cancer.
The main cause of skin cancer is ultraviolet (UV) radiation from excess exposure to the sun or artificial sources of UV radiation, such as sun lamps and tanning booths. I got in trouble once for mentioning tanning booths because some people make their living by renting time in them, but one study showed a 62% increase rate of melanoma among those who use of tanning booths. Exposure to the sun itself is likely safer because the ultraviolet rays are at least filtered by the atmosphere, where there is no filter in the tanning booth.
People who live in areas closer to the equator, which gets high levels of UV radiation from the sun, are more likely to get skin cancer. For example, skin cancer is more common in Texas, Florida, and California than in Minnesota, where the sun is not as strong.
Skin cancer is also related to lifetime exposure to UV radiation. Most commonly, it appears after the age of 50, but the sun’s damaging effects begin at an early
age. Therefore, protection should start in childhood to prevent skin cancer later in life.
The skin is the body’s largest organ, weighing about 6 pounds. It protects us against heat, light, injury, and infection; helps to regulate our body temperature; and stores water, fat, and vitamin D. Cancer (malignant tumor) is the out-of-control division of abnormal cells in the body. These cells can then invade nearby tissues and spread through the bloodstream and lymphatic system to other parts of the body.
The two most common kinds of skin cancer are basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas. Basal cell carcinoma accounts for more than 90% of all skin cancers in the United States. It is a slow-growing cancer that seldom spreads to other parts of the body. Squamous cell carcinoma also spreads rarely, but more often than basal cell carcinoma. Another type of skin cancer is melanoma, which usually begins in a mole, in the cells that produce skin pigment. All forms of skin cancer, however, should be treated early because they have the potential to invade and destroy nearby tissues.
The most common warning sign is a change on the skin—especially a new growth or a sore that doesn’t heal. A change in the size, shape or color of a mole can be a symptom of a melanoma. All three carcinomas are found mainly on areas of the skin that are exposed to the sun—the head, face, neck, shoulders, hands, and arms—but can occur anywhere. Rough, red or brown scaly patches on the skin, also called actinic keratoses, can sometimes develop into squamous cell cancer. The patches usually appear on sun-exposed areas, but can be found elsewhere on the body.
Skin cancers do not all look the same. Some may start as a small, shiny, smooth, waxy or pale lump. Others can appear as a firm red lump. Sometimes, the lump
bleeds or develops a crust. Skin cancer can also start as a flat, red spot that is rough, dry, or scaly. Not all changes in the skin are sure signs of cancer, but if a
skin symptom lasts longer than two weeks, see a doctor.
In most cases, skin cancers are not painful, so don’t wait for the spot to hurt.
The cure rate for skin cancer could be 100 percent if all skin cancers were brought to a doctor’s attention before they had a chance to spread. However, once a cancer is allowed to spread, the effects can be fatal.
To identify skin cancer early on, check yourself regularly in a well-lit room with a mirror for changes in the skin. Study yourself for your birthmarks, moles, and blemishes so that you know their normal appearance. Look for any changes in size, texture, or color of a mole, or a sore that just does not heal.
During a skin self-examination, evaluate the entire surface of the skin carefully, especially the areas exposed to sun light, like the palms and forearms, including the under sides and the upper portions of your arms. Look at the back and front of your legs and feet, including the soles and the spaces between the toes. Pay attention to your face, neck and scalp. Use a comb or a hair dryer to move hair so that you can see these areas more easily.
Surgery can get rid of many skin cancers quickly and easily. In fact, the cancer is sometimes completely removed at the time of the biopsy, and no further reatment
is needed. In some cases, doctors suggest radiation therapy, chemotherapy or a combination.
Even though most skin cancers are cured, the disease can recur in the same place or elsewhere on the skin. People who have been treated for skin cancer should examine themselves regularly, visit a doctor for regular checkups, and follow the doctor’s instructions on how to reduce the risk of redevelopment.
Beauty may be skin deep, but cancer may go all the way through. Sun bunnies, be careful!