Cancer occurs when damage to DNA causes genetic changes or mutations that lead to uncontrolled cell division. Cancer is caused by agents known as carcinogens, which cause DNA damage to cells. Like tobacco, UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds is considered a carcinogen because the damage it does to the DNA inside skin cells can lead to cancer. The body repairs much of the
damaged DNA, but some damage will remain, especially with repeated exposure to UV radiation.
Skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the epidermis, the outermost layer of skin, caused by unrepaired DNA damage that triggers mutations. These mutations lead the skin cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumors. The main types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma (BCC), Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC), and Melanoma.
The 2 main causes of skin cancer are the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays and the use of indoor tanning devices. Fortunately, if skin cancer is caught early, your dermatologist can treat it with little to no scarring and high odds of eliminating it entirely. Most times, your dermatologist may even detect the growth at a precancerous stage, before it has become a full-blown skin cancer or penetrated the deeper layers of the skin.
What Role do Genetics play in skin cancer risk?
Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) is the most common form of skin cancer and the most frequently occurring form of ALL cancers. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more than 4 million are diagnosed each year in the U.S. alone.
BCC most often occurs when UV exposure from the sun or indoor tanning triggers changes in basal cells in the outermost layer of skin, the epidermis. This results in uncontrolled cell growth.
BCCs can look like open sores, red patches, pink growths, shiny bumps, scars or growths with slightly elevated, rolled edges and/or a central indentation. Every so often, BCCs may even ooze, crust, itch or bleed.
Basal Cell Carcinomas can look quite different from one person to another. Here are some examples.
In some instances, BCCs can resemble noncancerous skin conditions like psoriasis or eczema. In other instances, skin cancer may be diagnosed when a cut does not heal.
Untreated BCCs can become aggressive, grow wide and deep into the skin and
destroy skin, tissue and bone. The longer you wait to have a BCC treated, the more likely it is to recur.
With early detection and treatment, almost all basal cell carcinomas can be successfully removed without complications. Look out for any new, changing or unusual skin growths, so you can spot skin cancers like BCCs when they are easiest to treat and cure.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) of the skin, or Cutaneous Squamous Cell Carcinoma, is the second most common form of skin cancer. It is characterized by abnormal, accelerated growth of squamous cells. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more than 1 million people are diagnosed with SCC each year.
Squamous cells can be found throughout the human body. These flat cells line organs, such as the lungs, throat, thyroid, and skin and function to protect underlying tissue. In the skin, squamous cells are located near the surface and shed continuously as new cells form. SCC occurs when DNA damage from exposure to UV radiation or other damaging agents trigger mutations in the squamous cells.
SCCs may appear as scaly red patches, open sores, rough, thickened or wart-like skin, or raised growths with a central depression. In some cases, SCCs may crust over, itch or bleed. Often, the lesions will arise on sun-exposed areas of the body; however, they can also occur on other areas of the body, including the genitals.
SCCs can look quite different from one person to another. Here are some examples.
In some instances, SCCs can look different from the descriptions just discussed. If you notice anything unusual, such as a sore that fails to heal, or a new spot, make an appointment with your dermatologist.
Although the majority of SCCs can be easily and successfully treated, if allowed
to grow, these lesions can become scarring, dangerous, and even deadly. Untreated SCCs can become invasive, grow into deep layers of the skin and spread to other parts of the body.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more than 15,000 Americans die each year from Squamous Cell Carcinoma. This is why it is important to be on the lookout for any warning signs, including new, changing or unusual skin growths.
Melanoma is a serious form of skin cancer that begins in cells known as melanocytes. Although it is less common than BCCs and SCCs, melanoma is far more dangerous because of its ability to spread to other organs more rapidly if it is not treated at an early stage.
Melanocytes are skin cells found in the upper layer of the skin. They produce the pigment knows as melanin, which gives skin its color. When the skin is exposed to UV radiation from the sun or indoor tanning sources, it causes skin damage that triggers the melanocytes to produce more melanin which causes the skin to darken or tan. Melanoma occurs when DNA damage from burning or tanning due to UV radiation triggers mutations in the melanocytes, resulting in uncontrolled cellular growth.
Many other factors also play a role in increasing the risk for melanoma including genetics, skin type or color, hair color, freckling and number of moles on the body. Understanding what causes melanoma and whether you are at risk of developing melanoma can help you prevent it or detect it early when it is easiest to treat and cure.
The ABCDEs and the Ugly Duckling sign can help you detect melanoma at the crucial early stage of the disease.
ABCDE's of Melanoma
Asymmetry- Most melanomas are asymmetrical. If you draw a line through the middle of the lesion, the two halves don’t match, so it looks different from a round to oval and symmetrical common mole.
Border- Melanoma borders tend to be uneven and may have scalloped or notched edges, while common moles tend to have smoother, more even borders.
Color- Multiple colors are a warning sign. While benign, or normal moles are usually a single shade of brown, a melanoma may have different shades of brown, tan or black. As it grows, the
colors red, white or blue may also appear. Very patriotic!
Diameter- Although it is ideal to detect a melanoma when it is small, it is concerning if a lesion is the size of a pencil eraser (about 6mm in diameter) or larger. Some experts say it is also important to look for any lesion, no matter what size, that is darker than others.
Evolving- Any change in size, shape, color or elevation of a spot on your skin, or any new symptom in it, such as bleeding, itching or crusting, may be a warning sign of melanoma.
If you notice any of these warning signs, or anything new, changing, or unusual on your skin, make an appointment with your dermatologist immediately.
The Ugly Duckling is another warning sign of melanoma. This strategy is based on the concept that most normal moles on your body resemble one another while melanomas stand out like ugly ducklings in comparison. This method highlights the importance of not just checking for irregularities, but also comparing any suspicious spots to
surrounding moles to determine whether they look different from their neighbors. These ugly ducklings can be larger, smaller, lighter, or darker, compared to surrounding moles. Moles without any neighbors are also considered ugly ducklings. Check out some examples of Ugly Ducklings below.
Since sun damage accumulates with every exposure to UV radiation, prevention is key! Preventing skin cancer by protecting yourself is easy and beneficial for your lifelong health. To learn about ways to protect yourself from harmful UV, CLICK HERE.