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Know the Skin You Live In: Skin Cancer May be Right Under Your Nose (or on Top of Your Ear)

What is skin cancer? “It’s an abnormal growth of skin cells, which is usually caused by the sun’s harmful rays.” That’s according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

The good news, if caught early, it’s highly treatable.

The bad news? Most of us aren’t doing enough to prevent it. The AAD did a survey in 2021 which showed that while we know what to do, but we’re not doing it.

  • 80% of Americans know they should apply sunscreen every two hours
  • Only 33% typically reapply
  • 42% don’t reapply or only do it after they get wet
  • 30% apply sunscreen just to their face

“So many kinds of cancer seem to come out of nowhere,” says Caleb Jeon, MD of Golden State Dermatology. “But we know what generally causes skin cancer, and we know most types are preventable. Yet we get a failing grade in self-preservation when it comes to this, the most visible form of cancer.”

The Good & Bad News of Skin Cancer

Cancer overall is the second-leading cause of death in the U.S.  Of all the forms of cancer, skin cancer is less deadly, but left untreated, it will spread and cause damage. The good news is that because skin cancer is external, we have a higher chance of noticing it and cutting off its growth before it can do harm.

Types of Skin Cancer

While there are multiple kinds of skin cancer, we’ll provide a quick overview of the three most common.

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) = most common

Basal cell carcinoma can look like a small bump or a pearly lump. It can develop anywhere on the body, but not surprisingly (since it’s caused by too much sun exposure or ultraviolet rays from tanning beds), it’s more common on body parts that see the sun more often.

If caught early, BCC is treatable. It has a low risk of metastasizing, or spreading to other areas, but it can go deeper into the body, causing damage in bones and nerves.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) = second most common

This kind can look red, be scaly, or behave like a sore that heals but then keeps opening up again. Look for SCC on places with high sun exposure, including the rim of the ear (a spot many of us miss when applying sunscreen). Just like BCC, if caught early, SCC can be stopped from going farther in the body.

If you see dry, scaly patches or spots on your skin and your primary doctor tells you those are actinic keratoses (AKs), don’t rest easy. Although they’re not cancer, they can turn into squamous cell carcinoma. Have a dermatologist look at them and keep evaluating them for changes.

Melanoma = most serious skin cancer

You may have heard of melanoma — the most deadly form of skin cancer — more than any other kind of skin cancer. It’s estimated more than 46,000 Americans will develop it annually. It comes from the skin cells that produce melanin (a protective pigment that makes skin get darker in general with sun exposure).

Melanoma can start out from a mole you already have (another reason to know the skin you live in!), or since melanoma cells usually continue to produce melanin, the cancer can show up in new darker spots, in a mix of tan, brown, and black (but it can be red or white).

Like any other type of cancer, you want to get this diagnosed and treated early. 

Curious what skin cancer can look like? Take a look at the American Cancer Society’s image gallery. Even if you think your bump or mole or scaly skin doesn’t look like any of these pictures, if it’s new or it has changed, please come in and see us!

Knowing Your Skin

How many of us know every inch of our bodies? Can you look at a mole and tell if it’s changed shape or color in the last six months? It’s not easy, even though we see our skin daily. In fact, that probably makes it even harder to look at it closely — we take it for granted.

To help all of us, the American Academy of Dermatology came up with the ABCDE method for checking moles.

  • A is for asymmetry. That just means it’s not even. If you folded it in half, like a piece of paper, would each side match the other? If not, it’s asymmetrical.
  • B is for borders. Look for uneven, irregular borders. Does it look kind of messy? Do the edges look scalloped, like a seashell?
  • C is for color. Red, brown, white, or uneven color = bad!
  • D is for diameter. Get out your ruler or smart phone and take a measurement. Melanoma is usually bigger than ¼ of an inch or 6 millimeters (but can be smaller; that’s why it’s good to evaluate each mole on more than one criterion).
  • E is for evolving. Evolve means change. Good for humans, not so good for the size, shape, or color of your mole.

“As any doctor will tell you, these are guidelines,” says Caleb Jeon, MD, of Golden State Dermatology. “But read these, and then look at your moles – have a family member look at the ones on your back. And ask your primary care doctor to keep an eye on them, too.”

Skin cancer is highly treatable, so don’t worry if you see something unusual on your body. Take action right away and know that you’ll have options and resources.

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