Knowledge is the best defense against skin cancers

By Kathy Hubbard

When my cousin Paul was around thirty years old, he was diagnosed with his first of many melanomas. He blamed living in Hawaii as an adult. The doctors disagreed; they credited his penchant for getting sunburned as a child.

Paul’s face was wracked by the multitudes of procedures to remove the cancers. Trying to stay a step ahead of each outbreak was like playing whack-a-mole, literally. Then, about twelve years later, he died because the cancer metastasized to his brain.

I’m going to talk about the top three skin cancers today. I’m mentioning Paul because I want you to keep yourself and particularly your children out of the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Although the sun gives us life, it is also the culprit in most skin cancers. Skin cancers can be prevented. And, when they occur, if detected early, they can be treated.

“Skin cancer is the out-of-control growth of abnormal cells in the epidermis, the outermost skin layer, caused by unrepaired DNA damage that triggers mutation,” the Skin Cancer Foundation’s website tells us. “These mutations lead the skin cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumors. The main types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma.”

Besides the sun’s harmful UV rays, the other main cause of skin cancers is tanning beds. Unfortunately, what some people think of as looking healthy is really jeopardizing their health. Think about this: one out of five Americans will develop skin cancer by age 70.

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common skin cancer. Around 3.6 million cases are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. “BCCs are abnormal, uncontrolled growths that arise from the skin’s basal cells in the outermost layer of skin (epidermis),” SCF says. They most often develop on the areas of the skin most exposed to the sun, particularly the face, ears, neck, scalp, shoulders, and back.

They also say that “BCCs can be locally destructive if not detected and treated early. Occasionally these cancers metastasize, and in rare instances, they can be fatal.”

Warning signs include an open sore that doesn’t heal; a reddish patch or irritated area; a shiny bump or nodule that is pearly or clear, pink, red, or white; a small pink growth with a slightly raised, rolled edge; a scar-like area that is flat white, yellow or waxy in color.

“Because BCCs grow slowly, most are curable and cause minimal damage when caught and treated early,” SCF says.

Squamous cell carcinoma is also an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells, this time in the – you guessed it – squamous cells. They’re most commonly found on the ears, face, scalp, neck, and hands, “where the skin often reveals signs of sun damage, including wrinkles and age spots,” according to SCF.

Roughly 1.8 million cases are diagnosed each year. “SCCs can sometimes grow rapidly and metastasize if not detected and treated early. As many as 15,000 deaths occur from invasive SCC of the skin each year in the U.S.”

Look for thick, rough, scaly patches that may crust or bleed. They may look like warts or be an open sore that won’t heal. “Sometimes SCCs show up as growths that are raised at the edges with a lower area in the center that may bleed or itch.”

Melanoma develops from melanocytes. These cells produce melanin pigment, which gives our skin its color. “Melanomas often resemble moles and sometimes may arise from them. They can appear on any body area, even in areas that are not typically exposed to the sun,” SCF says. It’s the most dangerous of the three most common skin cancers.

It’s often triggered by intense, intermittent sun exposure that causes sunburn. Using tanning beds increases the risk. In 2022, an estimated 197,700 new cases are expected to be diagnosed. Approximately half will be confined to the epidermis, and half will penetrate the epidermis into the skin’s second layer (the dermis).

Skin cancers are preventable. Protection is as easy as wearing proper clothing when exposed to the sun and sunscreen with an SPF rating of 30 or higher. So, as we go into the summer months, let’s be careful out there.

Kathy Hubbard is a member of the Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at kathyleehubbard@yahoo.com.  This article was written for and published in the Bonner County Daily Bee on June 1, 2022.

Donate