Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States and worldwide. Over 5 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. annually and 1 out of 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by age 70. Skin cancer diagnoses in the U.S. are higher than all other types of cancers combined. In the U.S., more than 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer every day and more than two people die from skin cancer every hour. Despite these alarming statistics, skin cancers are the most preventable and treatable forms of cancer. The more we can bring awareness to prevention and early detection, the more lives we can save.
Skin cancer develops from mutations due to DNA damage in skin cells that cause the cells to rapidly multiply and develop into malignant tumors. The most common forms of skin cancer are Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC), Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC), Melanoma and Merkle Cell Carcinoma (MCC).
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer, that typically develops in areas exposed to the sun. Most BCCs are caused by a combination of intermittent, intense sun exposure and cumulative, long term sun exposure. BCCs can be easily treated if detected early, they occasionally can spread to other organs (metastasize) but are rarely fatal.
Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common form of skin cancer, that commonly appears on sun-exposed areas of skin. SCC is due to cumulative, long-term exposure to UV radiation from the sun and tanning beds. SCCs can be easily treated if detected early, but if left untreated, they have a higher risk for metastasis. Around 15,000 deaths occur from invasive SCC of the skin annually in the U.S.
Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer due to its higher likelihood to metastasize. It develops from melanocytes (pigment producing skin cells) and can often look like a mole, though only about 20-30% of melanomas actually develop from existing moles. The majority of melanomas appear on normal-looking skin and can be found on any area of the body, even in areas that are never exposed to the sun. Intense, intermittent sun exposure that causes sunburns and tanning bed use increases the risk for melanoma. Melanoma can be curable when detected and treated early.
Merkle cell carcinoma is a rare, yet aggressive form of skin cancer. It typically appears on sun exposed areas in fair-skinned people over the age of 50. It presents as a firm, painless lesion or nodule. It is most often associated with the Merkel cell polyomavirus. MCC have a high risk of recurrence and metastasis, therefore early detection and treatment are paramount.
The majority of nonmelanoma (BCC, SCC, MCC) as well as melanoma skin cancers are associated with the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays as well as the use of UV tanning beds. The risk for melanoma doubles with a history of 5 or more sunburns throughout life. There are other risk factors for skin cancer, such as a family history of skin cancer, a weakened immune system, exposure to radiation and other certain substances.
The best way to prevent skin cancers is to avoid excess sun exposure, tanning, sun burns and to protect your skin daily with broad spectrum sunscreen, UV protective clothing, hats and sunglasses. Here is a great resource for daily sun protection https://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-prevention/sun-protection/.
If detected and treated early enough, 99% of skin cancers can be curable. This is why skin exams done both at home and at your dermatology office are essential. Performing monthly self skin exams, standing in front of a mirror to look at your entire body, will help you to become familiar with your skin and identify anything new, changing or suspicious as soon as possible. Skin cancer can affect anyone, regardless of skin color or ability to tan, therefore it is important for everyone to have a full body skin exam annually. If you have a history of skin cancer, you may need to have full body skin exams every 3-6 months, depending on the type of skin cancer. It is best to check with your dermatology provider to schedule the right plan for you.
Through education, prevention, early detection and treatment, we can save lives and greatly improve the quality of life for those affected by skin cancer.