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Looking Out for Skin Cancer

Author: Mary Keating

For:  Idaho State 2006 Edition

            966 words (including sidebars)

According to the American Cancer Society, approximately one out of every two men and one out of every three women will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime.

“Skin cancer is the most prevalent of all types of cancer,” said Dr. Earl Stoddard, Intermountain Dermatology in Pocatello. “It is estimated that more than one million new cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed in the US this year.”

As with many diseases, early detection is the surest way to a cure. Ann Voda, a retired professor of nursing at the University of Utah, was recently diagnosed with melanoma and is glad they discovered it in the early stages.

“You can’t be too vigilant,” said Voda. “I had a very dark small mole on my arm. It was a bit elevated and slightly irregular and I had a professional look at it.”

Many people have freckles, birthmarks and moles on their skin, the majority of which are normal. However, some growths and spots, particularly moles, may be cancerous said Dr. Stoddard. The key is in being able to recognize new or suspicious changes.

Dr. Stoddard and Voda both agree that quarterly self-examination accompanied by yearly professional examination by a dermatologist or your regular physician of your body is the best line of defense for protecting your skin’s health and lowering the risk of developing a potentially life threatening cancer.

What to Look For

There are three types of skin cancer: Basal Cell, Squamous Cell and Melanoma. When found early and treated properly, cure can be almost always be achieved by a simple outpatient surgery.

Basal Cell Skin Cancer (Carcinoma) is the most common skin cancer. Typically basal cells are found on areas of the body that have been exposed to the sun such as the head, face, hands, neck, back, chest and shoulders. Individuals might notice a small, fleshy bump, a nodule, or red patch. Untreated, the cancer often will begin to bleed, crust over, heal and repeat the cycle.

Squamous Cell Skin Cancer (Carcinoma) is the second most common skin cancer. Typically it is located on the rim of the ear, the face, lips and mouth. Individuals might notice a bump, or a red, scaly patch. Unlike, basal cells, squamous cells can develop into large masses and become invasive.

Melanoma is the third most common skin cancer. Malignant melanoma is the most deadly of all skin cancers. Melanoma can occur anywhere on the body, but is most commonly found on the upper backs of men and on the legs of women.

“This year, in the US alone, an estimated 8,000 people will die from melanoma.,” said Dr. Stoddard.

Melanoma begins in the cells that produce the dark pigment in the skin, melanocytes. It may appear suddenly or begin in or near an existing mole or another dark spot on the skin. It is very important for individuals to know the location and appearance of the moles on their bodies so they can detect changes early and notify their care provider.

 “Any change in a mole should be examined,” said Dr. Stoddard. “Early melanoma can be removed while still in the curable stages.”

During periodic self-examinations check for the various warning signs of melanoma. They may include: changes in the surface of a mole; scaliness, oozing, bleeding, or the appearance of a new bump; spread of pigment from the

Fair-skinned individuals and individuals with a relative or close family member who has had melanoma are at increased risk. It is important to note, dark skin is not a guarantee against melanoma. In fact, dark skinned individuals are often diagnosed in the later stages of melanoma which increases the chances that they could die as a result of melanoma.

Treatments Available

If a routine skin biopsy reveals cancer, the dermatologist has an assortment of medical and surgical procedures they follow. The standard practice depends on the type of cancer, its location and the needs of the patient.

Surgical treatments may include surgical removal of the cancer cells, electrodesiccation (tissue destruction by heat), cryosurgery (tissue destruction by freezing), laser therapy for skin cancer, and radiation therapy. Topical chemotherapy products may also be used.

To help prevent skin cancer, especially as warmer weather approaches, liberally apply sunscreen, wear protective clothing and a hat, and try to avoid prolonged exposure between the hours of 11 am and 3 pm.

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A Monthly Skin Self-Exam

 Early detection is the surest way to a cure. Periodic skin self-exams are one line of defense against skin cancer. Take a moment to:

  • Check your face, neck, mouth and lips.
  • Stand in front of a full length mirror. Examine your body front and back. Be certain to examine both your right and left sides while your arms are raised.
  • Bend your elbows and look carefully at the forearms, the back of the upper arms and the palms of your hands.
  • Check your back and your buttocks.
  • Look at your feet, the soles of the feet, and the spaces between the toes.
  • Use a hand mirror, if necessary, to closely examine the back of your legs and the back of your neck.
  • Spend a bit of time parting your hair to examine the scalp and the ears.

When performing a self-exam, remember to check every inch of your body, from the top of your head to the bottom of you toes. The goal is to look for any changes in existing moles, the appearance of new ones, or anything that seems unusual such as a bump or red-patch.

Contact your health care provider if you see a suspicious skin growth, see changes in the size, color, or texture of old moles or skin growths, or have a cut or wound that does not seem to heal.

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