By Kathleen Hutton, M.D.
Although winter is here, don’t let the cold, cloudy weather fool you. No matter what time of year it is or where you live, harmful ultraviolet rays (UVRs) are present year-round, and are the primary cause of skin cancer. Surprisingly, more women are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than breast cancer. In fact, according to SkinCancer.org, over the past three decades, more people have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined.
The good news? Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, accounts for only 1 percent of all skin cancers. More commonly diagnosed are basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) – both non-melanoma skin cancers (NMSC). If caught early enough, these NMSCs can be easily treated, in most cases.
Unfortunately, as you age, you have a greater chance to develop NMSC, likely due to accumulated sun exposure over the years. So, how you can protect your skin beyond sunscreen? What are the symptoms and signs of skin cancer? What are your treatment options if you are diagnosed?
Here are the three things your need to know to protect, detect and treat NMSC:
Protect yourself from those harmful rays
Whether it’s the height of summer in sunny California or the dead of winter in notoriously cloudy Ohio, protecting your skin from UVRs year-round is a must.
Clothing is the first line of defense. Tightly woven fabrics, like denim and wool, help keep UVRs out better than lightweight materials, such as bleached cottons and silk, which let more UVRs in. Wearing darker fabrics also helps block the rays from penetrating the skin.
Hats and sunglasses are critical, since your face and neck typically get the most sun exposure.
The Skin Cancer Foundation advises everyone to wear hats with a brim that extends three inches or more all the way around to shade the face, neck, ears, and even the top of the shoulders. Since 5 to 10 percent of all skin cancers arise on the eyelids, shop for shades that will block 99 percent to 100 percent of UVRs.
No matter what the forecast, don’t leave the house without a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 30 or higher sunscreen. It should be worn all day, every day on all exposed areas of your body. And, whenever possible, seek shade.
Symptoms and signs
While no one is immune to skin cancer, most basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas typically appear after age 50. Individuals who are fair-skinned and sunburn easily, or those with a history of sunburns, have a higher risk.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends performing skin self-exams every month. Although many people know how to identify the suspicious irregular-shaped moles that could be melanoma, fewer are familiar with the warning signs of NMSC. BCC is the most common type of skin cancer and often appears as small bumps or itchy red or pinkish spots that may bleed easily from slight friction. It also often appears on the face and might be confused with a pimple.
Meanwhile, SCC typically appears as a rough or wart-like growth that is thicker and more irregular in shape compared to BCC. Skin cancers are visible but not usually symptomatic, so if you notice any new or suspicious spots on your skin, it is important to contact a dermatologist immediately.
You have NMSC. Now what?
If you’ve been diagnosed with NMSC, don’t panic. Medical advancements and innovative technologies to remove skin cancer have come a long way in recent years. Caught early enough, NMSC is usually treatable. Depending on the size and location of the skin cancer, most patients have a variety of treatment options.
One of the most common procedures, which is considered the “gold standard” treatment, is Mohs micrographic surgery. Mohs is a half-day, outpatient procedure that enables clinicians to examine 100 percent of the entire tumor’s margin, reducing the likelihood of NMSC recurrence. Curettement (scraping), and excision, are other common, effective surgical options which involve removing the cancer cells and surrounding healthy tissue. However, with this approach, some patients risk scarring. If lesions are superficial, topical chemotherapy and/or cryosurgery (the freezing of cells with liquid nitrogen) are other non-surgical procedures, but these are more commonly used to treat pre-cancerous cells.
If you’re not a candidate for surgery, prefer a non-invasive option or are concerned about scarring, Xoft®electronic brachytherapy (eBx) is an alternative option. eBx is a painless, in-office procedure lasting about five minutes per treatment, with no down-time or scarring and a reduced risk of complications compared to traditional NMSC surgical options.
Of course, there are risks and benefits with any NMSC treatment, so be sure to consult with your doctor about the options best suited for your individual needs.
Skin cancer has no season, so it is important to be vigilant all year long to ensure you can quickly address any suspicious moles or lesions you find. Be sure that your dermatologist examines all of your skin!
Kathleen Hutton, M.D. trained at Mayo Medical Clinic. She is a board certified dermatologic surgeon practicing in Newport Beach, Calif. She is known as one of the premier dermatologists in Orange County specializing in diseases of the skin, skin cancers, moles, acne and cosmetic rejuvenation of the face and body.
This article appeared in thirdAGE.