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 most common type of cancer in the world. It is the abnormal growth of skin cells in the epidermis that is caused by unrepaired DNA damage from harmful UV. This abnormal growth can, in turn, cause the skin cells to multiply rapidly and form tumors. The most common types of skin cancers are basal cell carcinoma (BCC), Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC), and Melanoma, respectively.
The primary causes of skin cancer can be attributed to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation and the use of artificial tanning devices. Luckily, if a skin cancer is found early, dermatologists can treat it with little scarring and good chances of eliminating it completely. If you keep up with your preventative skin screenings, your dermatologist may even detect a lesion at a precancerous stage, before it has become an advanced skin cancer or invaded the deeper layers of the skin.
What Role do Genetics play in skin cancer risk?
Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) is the most prevalent form of skin cancer and the most frequently occurring form of ALL types of cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more than 4 million cases are diagnosed each year in the U.S. alone.
BCC occurs when harmful UV exposure from the sun or artificial tanning sources triggers mutations in basal cells— a type of cell in the outermost layer of skin, the epidermis. This results in uncontrolled cell growth.
BCCs often develops on the head or neck and looks like a shiny, raised, and round growth.
To help you spot a BCC before it grows wide and deep into your skin, The American Academy of Dermatology recommends keeping an eye out for these warning signs:
A pink or reddish growth that dips in the center
A growth or scaly patch of skin on or near the ear
A sore that doesn't heal, or heals and returns
A scaly, slightly raised patch of irritated skin
A round growth that may be the same color as your skin
A spot on the skin that feels a bit scaly or looks like an age spot
A scar-like mark on your skin that may be skin-colored or waxy
Early detection and treatment of a BCC is the key to successful recovery. When found early, almost all basal cell carcinomas can be successfully removed without complication. If you notice any spot on your skin that is growing, bleeding, or changing in any way, consult with your dermatologist.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) of the skin, or Cutaneous Squamous Cell Carcinoma, is the second most common form of skin cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more than 1 million people are diagnosed with SCC each year.
SCC is characterized by abnormal, accelerated growth of squamous cells. 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 is usually not life-threatening, though it can be aggressive. Untreated, squamous cell carcinoma of the skin can grow large or spread to other parts of your body, causing serious complications.
SCCs commonly appear on sun-exposed areas of the body such as the face, ears, neck, lips, and backs of the hands. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, they can also develop in scars or chronic skin sores elsewhere. They can occur anywhere on your body, including inside your mouth, the bottoms of your feet and on your genitals.
To help you spot a SCC before it grows wide and deep into your skin, The American Academy of Dermatology recommends keeping an eye out for these warning signs:
Rough feeling, reddish patch
Round growth with raised borders
A sore that won't heal, or heals and returns
Raised, round growth
Sore inside your mouth
Dark streak beneath a nail
SCCs can usually be removed completely, although they are more likely than BCCs to grow into deeper layers of 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. If you notice any spot on your skin that is growing, bleeding, or changing in any way, consult with your dermatologist.
Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer that develops when melanocytes (the cells that give skin its pigment) mutate and begin to grow out of control.
Although melanoma is less common than BCC and SCC, it is much more dangerous because of its likeliness to spread to other parts of the body if not caught and treated early.
Melanocytes are 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, the melanocytes produce more melanin which causes the skin to darken or tan. Melanoma occurs when exposure to harmful UV radiation causes damage to the DNA in your skin cells which triggers mutations in the melanocytes, resulting in uncontrolled cellular growth.
Many other factors also play a role in your risk for melanoma including genetics, skin type or color, hair color, freckling and number of moles on the body. Understanding the causes and risk factors for melanoma will help you prevent or detect it early when it is easiest to treat and cure.
The ABCDEs and the Ugly Duckling warning signs can help you detect a melanoma at an 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 and symmetrical common mole.
Border- Melanoma borders tend to be uneven and may have scalloped or notched edges. Common moles, on the other hand, tend to have smoother, more even borders.
Color- Multiple or uneven colors are a warning sign. While common 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.
Diameter- It is definitely concerning if a lesion is the size of a pencil eraser (about 6mm in diameter) or larger.
Evolving- Any change in size, shape, color or elevation of a spot on your skin, or any bleeding, itching or crusting, may also 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 as soon as possible.
Like the ABCDE's, an Ugly Duckling can also be a warning sign of melanoma. This approach is based on the idea that most of the regular moles on your body look like each other. Melanomas, on the other hand, stand out like ugly ducklings when compared to their neighbors.
When compared to surrounding moles, ugly ducklings can be larger, smaller, lighter, or darker. Additionally, moles without any neighbors may also be considered ugly ducklings. Check out some examples of Ugly Ducklings below.
Since sun damage accumulates with every exposure to harmful 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.