The Medical Minute: Skin cancer easy to prevent, still the most common cancer

May 16, 2007

Presented by Penn State Cancer Institute

Skin cancer is one of the easiest cancers to prevent and yet is still the most common form of cancer in the United States. When detected early, more than 95 percent of patients with skin cancer can be treated and cured. The three major types of skin cancer are the more common basal cell and squamous cell cancers and the rare malignant melanoma.

Basal cell and squamous cell cancers affect an estimated 1 million people annually in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. While malignant melanoma is less common, striking about 60,000 people a year, the current lifetime risk for an individual to develop malignant melanoma is one in 60. Malignant melanoma is the most rapidly increasing form of cancer in the United States, especially in young women, and is very deadly, accounting for 75 percent of all deaths from skin cancer. The reason? Malignant melanoma can spread to other organs, most commonly the lungs and liver, at which point it becomes hard to treat. Fortunately, when detected early, melanoma is curable.

The majority of skin cancers are thought to be caused by ultraviolet radiation, specifically UVA and UVB from the sun. Skin cancer can run in families, so genetics also may be involved. People with certain characteristics are at higher risk: fair- to light-skin complexion, family or personal history of skin cancer, chronic exposure to the sun, history of sunburns early in life, a large number of atypical moles and freckles (an indicator of sun sensitivity and sun damage).

How would I know if I have skin cancer?
The sooner skin cancer is detected, the better the chances of successful treatment, so it's important to recognize the early warning signs. Symptoms of skin cancer include a lump or patch that grows or changes color or shape. The lump may be smooth, pale and waxy or red, rough and scaly. Other symptoms include a sore that does not heal or an itchy lump or patch.

When checking for skin cancer, doctors will look for any changes in your skin, including the appearance or size of moles, using the ABCD guidelines:

-- A stands for asymmetry. The shape of the mole is different on each side.
-- B stands for border. Instead of a smooth, circular border, the mole has a jagged or irregular border.
-- C stands for color. instead of being the same color, the mole contains different shades.
-- D stands for diameter. The mole is larger than a pencil eraser.

How can I prevent skin cancer?
-- Limit sun exposure by covering up or applying sunscreen.
-- Take advantage of skin cancer screenings.
-- Avoid tanning beds.
-- Check skin regularly for lumps or areas that change in size, shape or color.
-- Tell a doctor if noticeable skin changes occur.

Take advantage of local skin cancer screenings. Penn State Dermatology and Penn State Cancer Institute will sponsor free skin cancer screenings from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday, May 19, as part of Skin Cancer and Melanoma Awareness Month. Dermatologists will screen individuals at the Penn State Dermatology Clinic, University Physician Center, suite 100, on the Penn State Hershey campus. Approximately 300 screening appointments are available. Individuals of all ages who have never been examined by a dermatologist are especially encouraged to participate. Call the Careline at (800) 243-1455 to schedule a screening appointment.

For information about skin cancer and to find a local screening, visit the American Academy of Dermatology Web site at online.

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Last Updated March 19, 2009