Skin Cancer: The facts
• Skin cancers are common in our community due to our high altitude
• Changes in moles or wounds that do not heal require medical attention
• Prevention is important; if you work or play outside, sunblock is critical and should be reapplied every two hours
• These cancers don’t go away, they only get worse, and are harder to treat when ignored
Q. What is the largest organ in the human body?
A. The skin
Your skin covers a large surface area and is subject to scrapes, cuts, sun, snow, hot sidewalks and spills of all types. It’s important that we don’t overlook our skin when considering our overall health.
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, and living in a high altitude, sunny environment puts us at a greater risk. Other risk factors include:
- Sun exposure – spending a lot of time outdoors
- Blistering sunburns – if you experienced several blistering sunburns as a child or teen
- Skin color – if you have fair skin, blond, red or light brown hair, blue eyes or freckles
- Artificial tanning – if you use tanning booths, beds or sunlamps
With all that we know about what can cause skin cancer, gone should be the days of baby oil , a book, and a day in the sun.
While there are several kinds of skin cancer, these can be divided into three common types:
Basal cell cancer – This type of cancer is locally aggressive, meaning if you leave it alone, it will just get bigger. It may not spread to other organs but may be become more and more difficult to treat, becoming unsightly, bleeding and disfiguring. Local excision (conservative surgical removal) is the usual treatment. Depending on the location, other approaches may be used such as medication or freezing with liquid nitrogen. These cancers may appear as chronically flaking skin or a sore that will not heal or constant bleeding.
Squamous cell cancers are more aggressive and can spread to other parts of the body and lymph glands. They can appear as a non-healing or bleeding ulcer. They may have a ridge around the center that is raised. A low volcano may be a good analogy of what these look like. Unlike the basal cells, the surgery needs to be more aggressive with a larger margin clear edges) around the specimen. The skin cancer and the surrounding edges may be checked at the time of the surgery with a frozen section (immediate analysis) or await the final definitive examination. It is important not to ignore these as they can grow in locations that may make treatment very difficult and disfiguring as well as life threatening. Sometimes plastic and reconstructive surgery is required to properly treat these cancers.
Melanoma is the third type of skin cancer and is becoming more prevalent. It is usually dark , and irregular. A crushed black berry on the skin is a good description. It is often raised above the level of the skin, various shades of color. It is can be seen on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Any dark moles in these areas are reason for serious concern. Melanomas can be slow growing or rapidly spread and cause death. They can spread to the lymph nodes under the arm or in the groin. They can be found on the trunk as well as the arms and legs. They are categorized as to how thick they measure under the microscope as well as what levels of the skin they penetrate. Deeper and thicker melanomas require the lymph nodes to be evaluated as well.