What is skin cancer?
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, and the number of people who develop skin cancer continues to rise. The condition is characterised by an uncontrollable growth of skin cells, resulting in a tumour, which can be either malignant or benign. Only the malignant tumours are referred to as ‘cancerous tumours’. There are three types of skin cancer: Basal and squamous cell skin cancer and melanoma. Around 95 % of all cases are due to basal or squamous cell skin cancer, and the remaining 5 % are due to melanoma.
The two former types of skin cancer are considered easier to cure than melanoma if they are diagnosed in time. Melanoma is a very serious type of cancer as it can easily be spread to other parts of the body via blood or lymph vessels, thereby forming metastasis. In metastasis, cancer cells break away from the primary tumour and form a new tumour in other organs or tissues of the body. Melanomas cause 75 % of all skin cancer related deaths.
What are the symptoms of skin cancer?
Skin cancer should not be neglected, and therefore it is important to know the symptoms:
- Basal cell carcinomas often look like small, red and flaky bumps. The bump might develop into a sore that does not heal. This type of cancer often occurs in the skin of the neck, face, ears or chest. Basal cell carcinomas are often confused with eczema or psoriasis as they may appear as red or brown spots on the skin. This type of cancer rarely spreads to other parts of the body.
- Squamous cell carcinomas can appear as firm, red or white bumps or as scaly red lesions that may crust or bleed. Both basal and squamous cell carcinomas often occur in areas frequently exposed to the sun, but they may appear all over the body. Squamous cell carcinomas can spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body.
- Melanomas usually appear as pigmented spots or bumps, but they may also be white or red. A melanoma sometimes looks like a regular mole but usually with a more irregular shape. Here, it is important to know the 5 signs of melanoma, or the ‘ABDCE’ - Asymmetry, Border, Colour, Diameter and Evolving.
What are the causes of skin cancer?
Exposure to ultraviolet radiation is the most common cause of skin cancer. UV radiation from tanning beds increase the risk of developing skin cancer as well. Being exposed to ultraviolet radiation during the winter is as harmful as it is during the summer.
This is because UV-A radiation from the sun is present in daylight throughout the year – regardless of the season. The amount of sun exposure increases the risk of developing basal and squamous cell skin cancer. In addition, serious sun burns, especially before the age of 18, can increase the risk of developing melanomas. Because of this, skin cancer frequently occurs in places that are not covered with clothes – and thus are frequently exposed to the sun’s strong UV rays.
Other less common causes of skin cancer include repeated exposure to X-ray beams and to certain strong chemicals.
Even though all people can develop skin cancer, the risk is higher for people who easily suffer sun burns, such as people with pale skin, freckles, blue or green eyes and blonde or red hair. People with darker skin tones are also susceptible to all types of skin cancer, even though their risk of developing skin cancer is significantly smaller. In addition, your risk is higher if you have a family history of skin cancer, or if you frequently work outside or live in a sunny climate.
What can I do to avoid skin cancer?
Even though the skin is capable of repairing itself to a certain degree, it is unfortunately impossible to reverse the damage already inflicted by the sun. However, it is never too late to start using lotions containing sun protection to reduce further damage. As you get older, your skin ages as well. For example, as your skin ages, you sweat less, and it takes longer for the skin to heal, but you can delay these changes by keeping out of the sun.
To avoid skin cancer, it is recommended that you apply SPF 30 sunscreen or more (to protect against UV-B rays) and zinc oxide (to protect against UV-A). You should apply the sunscreens around 20 minutes before going out into the sun, and again every two hours. You should, however, reapply more often if you sweat or swim. In addition, it is recommended to wear clothes, cosmetics and contact lenses that offer UV protection. It is also always a good idea to wear UV-blocking sunglasses and a broad-brimmed hat to protect your face and neck. It is recommended to stay in the shade in the hours between 12 noon and 3PM. It is also important to frequently examine your skin carefully for any changes in the appearance of old and new moles. Remember the ABCDE!
How is skin cancer treated?
The treatment of skin cancer depends on the type of skin cancer, and where it is placed on the body. Minor benign tumours can often be treated with simple surgery. However, if the tumour is large or malignant with metastases, a combination of radiation treatment and surgery is often used. Sometimes, it is necessary to remove nearby lymph nodes if there is any suspicion that the cancer has spread to them.