Time can stand still when you hear the diagnosis of “cancer” from your physician. For many this is a shocking and concerning time, yet for some even the diagnosis is not enough to change dangerous behaviors. Skin cancer is one of those cancers. Not only is it cancer but it can be a wake-up call to take your skin protection practices to the next level. Luckily for some, they can have their cancer cells removed right in a physician’s office while others are not so lucky. Regardless, not taking more drastic measures to prevent skin cancer or reoccurring skin cancer is just foolish and can be deadly.
Skin cancer is cancer. It’s not just a weird marking on the skin or a rash, it’s uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells. It occurs when unrepaired DNA damage to skin cells triggers mutations, or genetic defects, that lead the skin cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumors. Most skin cancer can be specifically traced to UV rays and tanning beds. Your skin can also produce precancer cells, that when treated early enough may be able to remove all precancerous cells. This goes to show how important early detection can be when it comes to your skin.
Our skin is our largest organ. When the skin is impacted by cancer, it isn’t always as easy as cutting or freezing it off. Like many diseases it can turn from bad to worse. Skin cancer can start on any area of the body, and then its cells can spread to other parts of the body which is referred to as metastasizing. When cancer cells in the skin metastasize, they can sometimes travel to the bone and grow there or other places. When cancer is diagnosed and named for where it starts, you hear people downplay “just having skin cancer,” but that’s because they don’t talk about the dangers or it being bone cancer, brain cancer, etc. When someone says they have bone cancer, they aren’t as likely to downplay it. Regardless, cancer is cancer and all cancer needs care, concern and compassion.
The most common kinds of skin cancers we hear about are: Basal Cell, Squamous Cell and Melanoma. Basal cell cancer is cancer that starts in the lowest layer of your skin. Squamous cell cancer starts on the top layer of your skin. Melanoma starts in the melanocytes that are the “color-making” cells of the skin (melatonin). Any of these can start as mild changes to your skin. They can be new growths, changes in moles, rashes or precancerous lesions. Sometimes these things can also happen to the skin and NOT be cancer; changes that are not cancer but could become cancer over time. According to www.webmd.com, “an estimated 40-50% of fair-skinned people who live to be 65 will develop at least one skin cancer. Learn to spot the early warning signs. Skin cancer can be cured if it’s found and treated early.”
When it comes to spotting the early warning signs it is best to learn all you can about your skin. Take time to look over your skin, note where you might have moles or concerns. Always ask for your doctor to check your skin at your yearly preventive visits and if you notice anything concerning before then, give them a call. You may be referred to a dermatologist who specializes in skin concerns and cancer who may be able to better asses and treat any abnormalities.
As mentioned, there are different ways to remove suspicious and/or precancerous cells. From having things cut or even frozen off the body there are nonsurgical ways of removing surface skin cancers. You can expect there to be a biopsy test and/or other testing to be sure that the cancer has not spread and that there were no traces left behind. Having these removals should be a wakeup call and not a free pass to just head back out in the sun unprotected.
According to www.skincancer.org, “More than 5.4 million cases of nonmelanoma skin cancer were treated in over 3.3 million people in the U.S. in 2012. More people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the U.S. than all other cancers combined. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70. Precancerous cells affect more than 58 million Americans. The annual cost of treating skin cancers in the U.S. is estimated at $8.1 billion: about $4.8 billion for nonmelanoma skin cancers and $3.3 billion for melanoma.” These are big numbers and we can do our best to try to stay out of these by caring for our skin year-round.
Avoid direct sunlight, wear sunscreen and sun safe clothes. Wearing UV protected sunglasses are always a smart choice too. Take it further by talking to your healthcare provider if you have any signs of being more predisposed to skin cancer or if you have other limitations or precautions that you should use. We can’t live each day in fear of what may happen, but we can empower ourselves and protect ourselves to stay as healthy as possible. Your skin is so important to your overall health and you are too important to so many people, so be sun safe! Take care of your skin, because skin cancer is cancer.
Director of The Wellness Center