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Could it be Skin Cancer?

christinaburr2_thumbby Christina Burr, PA-C

Did you know that Skin Cancer is the most common type of cancer?  While it can occur at any age, the risk for skin cancer increases as you age.  It is caused by a variety of factors including sun exposure and genetics.  You are also at increased risk if you are Caucasian, have had multiple sunburns during your lifetime, have more than 50 moles, have light colored hair, have blue or green eyes, have a family history of skin cancer, use tanning beds, spend a lot of time working or playing outdoors, have had radiation, chemo, organ transplant or are immune compromised.

How do I identify skin cancer? 

The good news is that if you catch skin cancer early, most types of skin cancer are very treatable.  The three most common types of skin cancer are Basal Cell Carcinoma, Squamous Cell Carcinoma, and Melanoma.  Since early detection is important, we strongly encourage everyone to see their local dermatology provider for a yearly skin examination to screen for skin cancer and to educate yourself on what changes to watch for in your skin at home.  It is difficult to see your own back where many people have several moles, as well as your scalp and the back of your own legs, and a simple skin screening with your dermatology provider could save your life.  It’s simple, easy, doesn’t take long and can give you peace of mind.  Send your loved ones too, you could save their lives.

Take a Look in the Mirror

You see your skin every day and so you can look for changes too — be sure to contact your dermatology provider if you have a spot that you are worried about.  We would always rather take a look at it and evaluate if it is safe or not than to let something go untreated.

Here are some things that you can look for:

actinic-keratosisActinic Keratoses (AK’s)—Actinic Keratoses are frequently called “pre-cancers”.  They often times look like a dry scaly pink area that just won’t go away despite moisturizing or keeps reoccurring in the same area.  Ak’s occur most often in sun-exposed areas, especially on the face, scalp, and arms.  Sometimes they are tender, sensitive, sore or bleed but often they are asymptomatic.  When found early, Ak’s can usually be easily treated with liquid nitrogen.  If untreated Actinic Keratoses have the potential to grow into a skin cancer.   You should contact your dermatology provider for evaluation if you have a dry scaly pink area that lasts longer than 4-6 weeks.

 basal-cell-carcinomaBasal Cell Carcinoma (BCC)—Basal Cell Carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer and it frequently occurs in areas that get a lot of sun, such as the face, arms, back, and chest.  It most often looks like either a shiny flat pink area on the skin or a pink pimple like lesion that just does not go away.  BCC typically doubles in size every year so the sooner it is treated the easier it is to treat and the less damage is done.  While it often is painless at first, if untreated a Basal Cell can over time begin to bleed, ulcerate into an open wound, and become sore, painful or locally destructive.  You should contact your dermatology provider for evaluation if you have any pimple-like lesion or wound that lasts longer than 4-6 weeks.

squamous-cellSquamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) —Squamous Cell Carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer.   SCC is most often found on sun-exposed areas of skin often the ears, face, scalp and lips but can occur anywhere on the body.  It can sometimes look like an irritated or dry patch of skin or a wound or scab that just won’t heal.  Usually, it grows slowly over time, but there is a type of SCC that grows quickly, often over days to weeks and frequently is described as a hard, pink, painful horn-like lesion.  When caught early, a Squamous Cell can often be treated with a small in office excision.  If left untreated, SCC will continue to grow, can bleed, become a painful wound like lesion and has the potential to eventually spread to other parts of the body.  You should contact your dermatology provider for evaluation if you have any wound, scab or dry patch that lasts longer than 4-6 weeks.

Melanoma— Melanoma is the deadliest forms of skin cancer that we treat and catching it early is extremely important.  Melanoma can occur in a changing mole or as a new lesion on the skin.  People tend to grow moles in a certain pattern and while everyone’s pattern is unique, you probably have noticed that many of your moles look similar to each other and this is a good thing.  Ideally you want your moles to all look similar, to have nice crisp even borders, be all one uniform brown color and to in general be a small circular shape.  Some people have flat moles, some people have elevated moles and some people have both.  Melanoma can occur anywhere on the body, even on the bottoms of feet, toes, under nails, on the scalp, buttocks and genitalia.  We are seeing a significant increase in Melanoma especially in young adults.  Tanning beds significantly increase your risk of Melanoma.  When a melanoma is caught in its earliest form (Melanoma in situ), that person has about a 97% 5-year survival rate and can most often be easily treated with a small in office excision and follow-up.  When melanoma is found late (Stage IV), that person has about a 10% 5-year survival rate and often requires extensive oncology intervention and radiation in addition to surgical excision.  So the message is if you feel a mole is changing—don’t wait!  If you start to notice a mole rapidly growing, changing colors, itching, or bleeding you should have it evaluated.  You should also contact your dermatology provider if you notice a mole has a fading or unclear edge to its border, if it has multiple colors, if you develop a new mole as an adult, notice a dark line in or near a fingernail/toenail or if one mole just doesn’t look like the rest of your other moles as this could be a sign of change.

What Else Can I do?

We want you to get outside and enjoy life.  We also want you to protect your skin as best you can while you are out there.  In addition to getting your yearly skin check with your local dermatology provider and checking your skin regularly for changes at home, here’s what else you can do:

  • Wear Sunscreen. Every day.  You would be surprised how much sun you can get during your normal daily activities.  We recommend a broad spectrum sunscreen containing Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide with at least an SPF 30
  • Wear protective clothing. Wide brim hat, sunglasses, sun shirts etc.
  • Avoid the heat of the day and seek shade whenever possible. Try to avoid the direct sun between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm.
  • Quit Smoking. Smoking increases your risk for Squamous Cell Skin Cancer.
  • Avoid Tanning Beds. Tanning beds increase your risk for skin cancer including Melanoma.

Have questions?  We are glad to help.  Call 608-342-5060 to schedule an appointment for your skin check!

Christina Burr, PA-C
Certified Physician Assistant – Dermatology
Appointments (608) 342-5060
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