May is skin cancer awareness month and a topic that definitely needs some attention brought to it. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer; however, it’s also the most treatable if detected early. According to the CDC, more than five million people are treated for skin cancer every year in the United States.
With skin being the body’s largest organ, it’s easy to see why skin cancer is so prevalent. Unfortunately, the incidence of all types of skin cancer only continues to rise each year, and the elderly are at particular risk. Because older adults have had prolonged exposure to the sun and other carcinogens, they are at a greater risk for developing skin cancer later in life.
What is Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer is the abnormal growth of skin cells that begins in the epidermis. It can develop anywhere on the body but is more likely to form on areas exposed to the sun, such as the face, neck, ears, and scalp. Skin cancer can affect anyone, but fair-skinned individuals and those with blond or red hair are at a greater risk.
There are three main types of skin cancer, as well as actinic keratosis, a precancerous type.
Actinic Keratosis (AK) is considered precancer because, if left untreated, it can develop into squamous cell carcinoma. It appears as a dry, scaly patch.
Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) is the most common form of skin cancer and usually looks like a white bump or bleeding sore that won’t heal. BCC is slow-growing and rarely spreads to other parts of the body but can still affect surrounding tissue.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common type of skin cancer and is more aggressive than basal cell carcinoma. It appears as a rough, scaly patch, bump, or growth that may heal and then reopen. SCC is more likely to spread to other parts of the body, including the lymph nodes.
Melanoma is the most aggressive form of skin cancer and usually resembles a mole or black/brown patch that changes shape. If left untreated, this cancer affects nearby tissue and can spread to other parts of the body and become deadly.
Skin Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment
Skin cancer is diagnosed through excision and biopsy. This is done by slicing away a small portion to be examined by a pathologist. There are several effective treatment methods depending on the size and location of the cancerous lesion. You can use topical medications for precancerous cells as well as limited basal cell carcinoma. Other treatments methods for skin cancer include:
Excisional surgery – where the entire growth is removed along with surrounding healthy skin to be safe.
Curettage and electrodesiccation – a technique that uses a sharp instrument known as a curette to scrape out the cancerous tissue and then an electric needle to cauterize the edge.
Mohs surgery – removes cancerous tissue layer by layer until cancer is no longer detected. This technique prevents the harming of healthy tissue and reduces the chance of recurrence.
For extreme cases, you make need to seek radiation therapy.
Every situation is different and will require an individualized treatment plan. If you suspect you may have skin cancer, you should contact your provider or dermatologist for an examination.
Prevention is Key – How to Prevent Skin Cancer in Older Adults
Sun exposure and sunburns are the leading causes of skin cancer. On average, your risk for melanoma doubles if you’ve had more than five sunburns in your life. Unfortunately, you can’t erase your adolescent years spent in the sun, but you can take precautions now!
When outside, wear protective clothing and, most importantly, do so even on a cloudy day. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, cloud cover only filters out around 20 percent of UV rays. Rays can penetrate clouds as well as reach below the water’s surface. So, there’s really no escaping the sun’s damage; you just have to be smart and protect yourself.
The sun’s damaging UV rays are strongest in the middle of the day. So try to minimize your sun exposure from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. And when possible, stay in shady areas to block the sun’s rays.
Always, always, always apply sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. This is your first and main line of defense against the sun’s rays. Don’t forget the tops of your feet, earlobes, and neck. You can often overlook those areas, and they are the quickest places to burn.
Early Detection Saves Lives
When detected early, the five-year survival rate for melanoma is 99 percent. That’s some pretty good odds. But that means you are taking care of yourself and being proactive with your skincare and health.
Make sure you perform regular self-exams and if you notice a new or suspicious spot, call your dermatologist right away. Most types of skin cancer are highly treatable and curable if detected early!