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How to Prevent Skin Cancer

Most of us have moles and skin spots here and there.  But how can you tell when a spot is something you should worry about?  May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, a great opportunity to learn cancer prevention techniques before the summer months officially arrive.

By
Sanaz Majd, MD,
May 29, 2014
Episode #155

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Summer BBQs, pool parties, and beach vacations - we're all eagerly anticipating fun in the sun activities the summer has in store for us.  But all of this sun exposure is not without a price. 

Skin cancer is typically developed through sun exposure.  Do you know what you need to do in order to protect your skin from cancer?  Most of us have spots on our skin here and there. But how can you tell when a skin spot is something to worry about?  When should you see your doctor?

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month...right on cue for the upcoming sun-worshiping months.  So I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn about skin lesions, learn how to tell if something you have on your skin is actually worrisome, and how to protect your skin from cancer.

Sponsor: This episode of House Call Doctor is brought to you by the audiobook edition of Total Recovery by Dr. Gary Kaplan. In this informative program, one of the country’s top integrative doctors radically rethinks chronic pain. Listen to an excerpt at www.macmillanaudio.com/TotalRecoveryAudio.

The Types of Skin Cancer

There are 3 main categories of skin cancer, and it's important to distinguish them.  Here are the 3 main types:

  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma

  • Basal Cell Carcinoma

  • Melanoma

The first two are less worrisome.  That's because they typically stay within a single location on the skin. They may simply keep growing until they are surgically removed, but they don’t typically spread through the blood stream or lymphatic system and they aren’t usually fatal. 

Melanoma, on the other hand, is a skin cancer that spreads to other organs (or metastasizes). It is the most aggressive and dreaded form of the disease. In melanoma, skin cells that produce pigment called “melanin” overgrow and become cancerous. Melanoma is often dark brown, black, or purple, but can be any color.  It can occur at any age and on any area of the body – including hard-to-see areas such as on the genitals, the eyes, lips, and bottom of the feet.  In men, it is most often found on the back and in women in the legs or feet. 

Skin Cancer Risk Factors

Certain patient populations have a higher risk of developing skin cancer.  This includes people with:

  • Light-complexioned skin

  • Naturally blond or red hair

  • Blue, green, or hazel eyes

  • Family history of skin cancer

  • Having many moles

Symptoms of Melanoma

There’s a mnemonic that is often taught to patients to help them distinguish more serious lesions that can be suspicious for melanoma. We call it the “ABCDE’s” of melanoma,and everyone with moles and various skin spots should be aware of them:

  • A = Asymmetry:  If you split the skin lesion in half, is it symmetrical?  Does one half look like the other half?  Melanoma tends to be more asymmetric.

  • B = Border:  Skin spots with irregular borders, jagged edges, or borders that you simply can’t quite delineate easily are considered more suspicious.

  • C = Color Variation:  Spots on the skin that contain more color variation – for example, a light and darker shade of brown within the same spot, are more concerning for melanoma.

  • D = Diameter:  Skin spots greater than the end of your pencil eraser are also more suspicious.

  • E = Evolving:  Even if you a have a skin lesion that is symmetrical, with regular borders, one uniform color, and smaller than a pencil eraser, but if it’s changing in any way (like if it’s growing in size, is now itchy or bleeding, is swollen, or the shape or color is changing over time) then it’s important to show your doctor.  Melanoma can appear even in birthmarks.

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