Experts explain how to detect the warning signs of skin cancer

By Jennifer Fabiano, AccuWeather staff writer

Skin cancer, defined by the fact that it starts on the skin, is more common in the United States than all other human cancers combined.

Initially, skin cancer is not symptomatic, meaning spots on the skin won’t necessarily itch or hurt, according to Dr. Aleksandar Sekulic, the associate director for Mayo Clinic’s Center for Individualized Medicine in Arizona.

There are many different types of skin cancer, but the three of the most common include basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer with an estimated 2 to 4 million cases in the United States each year. According to Sekulic, basal cell carcinoma are the easiest cases of skin cancer to treat by surgical removal.

The second most common type of skin cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, which occurs in approximately 1 million people in the U.S. per year.

Dermatologist skin cancer

In this Wednesday May 27, 2009 photo, Dr. Patrick Hwu, left, talks with his cancer patient Hilde Stapleton during an examination at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Stapleton has been receiving an experimental treatment for melanoma. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Melanoma is the least common of the three types but appears in over 90,000 people in the U.S. per year. Though less common, melanoma is more aggressive and deadly than any other type of skin cancer. In basal and squamous cell carcinoma, it is unlikely for cancer to spread, but that is a common phenomenon with melanoma.

Melanoma starts with a horizontal growth pattern before it travels to a deeper layer. According to Dr. Hooman Khorasani, chief of the Division of Dermatologic and Cosmetic Surgery at Mount Sinai health system, melanoma is most common in older adults, though in recent years one specific group has emerged to be at a higher risk for melanoma: young women in the United States.

About 9,000 people die annually from melanoma in the U.S., which is more deaths than any other skin cancers, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Skin cancer is easily treated by surgical removal if detected early, even with melanoma.

“Early detection is extremely important,” Khorasani said. “Melanoma is directly related to the depth of spread…meaning the earlier you catch it, the easier it is to treat it. The deeper the cancer spreads, the harder it is to treat it.”

Due to the importance of early detection, Khorasani emphasizes the importance of visiting a dermatologist for an annual skin check, especially if one is fair-skinned, has freckles, blue eyes, blonde or red hair, or has a family history of melanoma, which are all risk factors of melanoma.

In addition to visiting a dermatologist regularly, it’s important to check your own skin at least once a month and be mindful about your moles and other marks that are on your body. Half of melanoma cases are actually detected by patients themselves, according to Khorasani.

Dermatologists typically recommend that patients keep an eye on skin marks using the “ABCDE” system, which reminds patients to look out for asymmetry, irregular border, multiple colors, a large diameter and evolution in any spot on the body.

ABCDE skin cancer test

Minimizing skin cancer risk is easy, but most people have trouble implementing protective practices into their routine, according to Sekulic. The best way to minimize risk is to limit sun exposure by simply not exposing oneself to direct sunlight without protection. If you must be in direct sunlight, you can still minimize risk by wearing hats and other protective clothing. Areas that are not able to be covered by clothing should be covered by sunscreen.

“These simple measures can dramatically reduce the amount of ultraviolet light that ends up hitting the skin,” Sekulic said.

Sekulic reminds that protection from the sun is a year-round matter. Even if you’re not laying out by the pool, you should have SPF on every time you are out in the sun.

“People should adopt a habit of sun protection rather than just thinking of it once a year when they go on vacation,” Sekulic said.

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The most common early treatment for these three skin cancers is surgery.

“Most skin cancers are curable by surgical removal when they are found early,” Sekulic said. “If they’re not, that’s where we get into trouble.”

There are options for those who have skin cancer that is not detected early. Historically, melanoma has been one of the deadliest cancers, but developments over the past 10 to 15 years have dramatically improved the outlook for somebody who is diagnosed with melanoma, according to Sekulic.

Novel treatments such as targeted therapies and immunotherapies have increased survival response rates. Sekulic credits these investments to the investment in science.

“It is critical that we support science, that we support new discovery,” Sekulic said. “Clearly it can directly impact the lives of everybody who gets the disease.”

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