Any doctor will tell you that educating yourself about your health (and knowing how to apply that knowledge) is one of the first steps toward protecting your long-term wellness. This is especially true when it comes to skin cancer. The word “cancer” is scary to anyone, but most skin cancers are extremely treatable and even curable if they’re discovered early, and you’re much more likely to find cancer in its early stages if you know what to look for. There are many different types of skin cancer, but the three most common make up over 99% of all skin cancers. These are melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma, and understanding the basics about each type will help you keep an eye out for them.
While all skin cancers need to be treated, melanoma is the most serious of the three categories. Essentially, melanoma is a cancer affecting melanocytes—the type of cells that form pigment. That’s why melanoma generally appears as an irregular dark spot on your skin, and sometimes forms out of once-healthy moles.
When you’re looking for melanoma, you should identify anything that seems out of place or unlike your other moles and freckles, especially if you see a spot that has changed, but the “ABCDEs” can help you know what to look for:
- Borders that are irregular (not smooth and round)
- Color (uneven color throughout the spot)
- Diameter (specifically, larger than 6 millimeters—the size of a pencil eraser)
- Evolution (whether the spot has changed)
Basal Cell Carcinoma
Affecting the cells that comprise the basal cell layer of the skin, basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common form of skin cancer. Fortunately, it’s also much less likely to spread and become life-threatening than melanoma is. Unlike melanoma, BCC is often pink or the same color as healthy skin, but it is raised, smooth, and may look translucent or shiny or a sore that hasn’t healed. While it has a very high cure rate and it rarely becomes life-threatening, a BCC can grow to affect surrounding tissue and cause long-term nerve damage and disfigurement, so it’s important to have it treated as early as possible to reduce the risk of life-long effects and to minimize scarring.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Like BCC, squamous cell carcinoma (or SCC) is also rather common and it is typically treated without causing serious health problems, but it can create extensive damage for the surrounding area if it is not treated early. SCCs can take on several different appearances. They may be firm red bumps, or small scaly patches of skin (which can be confused with psoriasis), or even a sore that appears to heal and then re-open.
Some BCCs and SCCs start as a form of pre-cancer called actinic keratosis (AK). AKs are typically patches of scaly, thick skin that can become bumpy and may even look like warts. Fortunately, these can often be treated before they become cancerous, so they’re an important warning sign to look out for.
Knowledge and follow-through are your best weapons against skin cancer (because you don’t simply need to know the signs, but you need to actively look for them as well with monthly self-exams). Use appropriate sun protection every day, follow the guidelines above about how to spot early skin cancer, and if you do see something concerning (or if you’re due for your annual professional skin cancer screening), schedule an appointment at Dermatology Associates of Atlanta (DAA).