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What you should know about skin cancers.

By: Kathy Hubbard

Before we talk about skin cancers, let’s talk about skin. We should all know that it’s the body’s largest organ, and it protects us against heat, sunlight, injury, and infection.

“Skin also helps control body temperature and stores water, fat, and vitamin D,” the National Cancer Institutes says. “The skin has several layers, but the two main layers are the epidermis (upper or outer layer) and the dermis (lower or inner layer).

“The epidermis is made up of three kinds of cells: squamous cells are thin, flat cells that make up most of the epidermis; basal cells are the round cells under the squamous cells, and melanocytes are found throughout the lower part of the epidermis. They make melanin, the pigment that gives skin its natural color. When skin is exposed to the sun, melanocytes make more pigment, causing the skin to tan, or darken.”

There are two main types of skin cancer. Nonmelanoma or keratinocyte carcinoma (which includes basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma), and melanoma. Basal cell is the most common, while melanoma is often called “the most serious” because it can spread to other organs.

The American Academy of Dermatology Association explains that basal cell carcinoma (BCC) looks like a flesh-colored, pearl-like bump, or pinkish patch of skin. Squamous cell carcinoma often looks like a red firm bump, scaly patch or a sore that heals and then re-opens. And melanoma frequently develops in a mole or suddenly appears as a new dark spot on the skin.

“BCC frequently develops in people who have fair skin, however people who have skin of color also get this skin cancer. BCCs are common on the head, neck, and arms; however, they can form anywhere on the body, including the chest, abdomen, and legs. Early diagnosis and treatment for BCC are important. BCC can grow deep. Allowed to grow, it can penetrate the nerves and bones, causing damage and disfigurement,” AAD explains.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) also tends to more often affect those with fair skin but can affect anyone. It often forms on skin that gets frequent exposure to ultraviolet (UV) such as the face, neck, arms, chest, back and rim of the ear.

AAD adds that “some people develop dry, scaly patches or spots on their skin called actinic keratoses (Aks). Also caused by too much sun, an AK isn’t skin cancer. An AK is a precancerous skin growth that can turn into squamous cell carcinoma.”

Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial for melanoma. It’s the deadliest form of skin cancer. “Knowing the ABCDE warning signs of melanoma can help you find an early melanoma,” AAD says. “A is for asymmetry. One half of the spot is unlike the other half. B is for border. The spot has an irregular, scalloped, or poorly defined border. C is for color. The spot has varying colors from one area to the next. D is for diameter. While melanomas are usually greater than 6 millimeters, they can be smaller. And E is for evolving. The spot looks different from the rest or is changing in size, shape, or color.”

The Skin Cancer Foundation says that prevention requires protecting yourself from harmful UV rays. That’s not rocket science, but remember that exposure is cumulative, so the sunburns you got when you were a child may affect your skin as you age.

“UV radiation from the sun isn’t just dangerous, it’s also sneaky. Not only can it cause premature aging and skin cancer, it reaches you even when you’re trying to avoid it – penetrating clouds and glass, and bouncing off snow, water and sand,” they say.

SCF recommends you seek shade between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.; don’t get sunburned; avoid tanning, and never use UV tanning beds; cover up with clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses; apply two tablespoons of broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher (30 SPF for extended outdoor activity) 30 minutes before going outside; examine your skin head-to-toe each month, and see a dermatologist at least once a year for a professional skin exam.

And finally, I have to tell you to keep newborns out of the sun, start applying sunscreen to children when they’re six months old, and continue until they’re in college!

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 publication in the Bonner County Daily Bee on May 29, 2024.

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