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The ABC’s of skin cancer

The ABC’s of skin cancer

Dr. Erika Krumbeck

Sunbathing woman

Everyone knows that sun exposure can lead to skin cancer. But did you know that there are several different types of skin cancer?  Most people equate skin cancer with big, weird-shaped moles, but that is not the only thing to look for.

It is very important to understand the difference in types of skin cancer so you can know how to look for and how to prevent it.

Types of Skin Cancer

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer, and also the most benign (least dangerous). Basal cell carcinoma are associated with age and UV light exposure. They typically do not look like regular “moles,” but rather an open sore, pink growth with a rolled border, or most commonly a shiny bump. Basal cell carcinoma are treated by removing the cancer; the sooner this occurs the less scarring and damage to underlying tissue.

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer, and also rarely causes problems when caught early. Squamous cell carcinoma is associated with long-term UV light exposure, immune deficiencies and environmental exposures. It is also treated by removing the skin cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma does not look like a “mole” and can vary in appearance, sometimes looking like a scab or lump, but usually scaly or wart-like.

Melanoma is the least common but most dangerous type of skin cancer. Melanoma usually (but not always) has a pigment, varying from red to brown to black. Melanoma can usually be recognized by the ABCDE’s:

  1. Asymmetry: Cancerous “moles” are usually not symmetrical.
  2. Border Irregularity: Melanoma usually has an uneven border with uneven area of shading from pigment to normal skin color.
  3. Color: Cancerous growths usually have multiple shades of tone (flesh-toned, black, brown or red).
  4. Diameter: Melanoma is typically more than 6 mm in diameter.
  5. Elevation: This type of cancer often is raised with an irregular shape (not smooth or dome-like).

A general check of all easily visible skin should be done at every annual exam in your physician’s office. Though most malignant melanomas follow the “ABC’s”, many do not or look like something completely different.

Any suspicious mole, flesh-colored growth or area of pigmented skin should be checked by your physician at least once. And because melanoma spreads quickly, schedule an appointment with your dermatologist or primary care physician if you have any new growth or mark, or any change in an existing mole, or if you are concerned about your skin.

Some experts suggest that 65 percent of skin cancer is caused by ultraviolet sun exposure. Lifelong sun-exposure can contribute to basal and squamous cell carcinoma, but it is primarily childhood sun-exposure that predisposes to melanoma. Children and teens should avoid sunbathing for the purpose of tanning, especially in artificial tanning salons.

Adults and children alike should practice safe sun habits. Because the sun is a primary source of vitamin D (itself cancer-fighting), sun exposure should not be strictly limited. However, no burn is a good burn.

Guidelines to Prevent Excessive Sun Exposure

  1. Shade and protective clothing are nature’s best non-toxic way of preventing UV exposure. A wide-brimmed hat and tight-weave cotton clothing can be cooling as well as sun-protective.
  2. Stay out of the sun during mid-day hours (10 am to 4 pm).
  3. Be aware of the effects of elevation and water or snow reflection. Take extra care to cover-up in these conditions.
  4. When shade or protective clothing are not appropriate or available, choose a sunscreen with azinc-oxide base and very few artificial ingredients. Many sunscreens with organic and natural ingredients are available at health food or supplement stores. Remember that many toxic ingredients can be absorbed by the skin, and the long-term effects of these are unknown.

Alba Botanica SunscreenHow to Choose a Sunscreen

I highly recommend checking with the Environmental Working Group to pick the best, most non-toxic sunscreen. It is incredible the amount of chemicals included in many sunscreen products. Remember that the skin can absorb many toxic chemicals.
Environmental Working Group’s database on safe cosmetics and skin care products can be found at: www.cosmeticsdatabase.com.


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