Health A to Z

Skin cancer

The best defense is a good offense - especially when it comes to protecting skin.
Skin cancer causes, symptoms, and treatments

Catching some rays can feel so good but too much sun can lead to skin cancer, which is cancer in the cells of the skin, the body’s largest organ. Most cases of skin cancer are either basal or squamous cell carcinomas. They develop later in life on areas of the skin exposed to the sun, progress slowly and rarely spread to other parts of the body. Five percent of all skin cancers are malignant melanomas that usually occur earlier in life, progress rapidly and can be deadly. There are an estimated 75,000 skin cancer cases and 5,000 melanoma cases in Canada in a single year, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.

Skin cancer causes Most cases of skin cancer are preventable. Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation, or UV rays, from the sun is the main cause of the disease. UV rays create changes in the cells of the skin or directly damage the cells. People who get severe sunburns in childhood are at greater risk of skin cancer. Being fair-skinned, freckled, and having blue eyes and blonde or red hair also boosts the risk.

Skin cancer symptoms Basal cell carcinoma may appear as flesh-coloured or slightly reddish bumps, or pimple-like growths that bleed, crust over and then reappear. Squamous cell carcinomas may grow quickly over a period of a few weeks and usually appear on sun-exposed areas, such as the head, neck, arms, ears and lips as a thick red scaly bump or a wart-like, crusted growth. Melanoma can develop in weeks or years and may appear as a new mole or freckle, or develop in an existing mole. In women, they often appear on the leg. The ABCDEs of identifying melanoma include: asymmetry — an asymmetrical shape; border — an irregular edge; colour — a mix of brown, black, red, grey or white); diameter — melanoma grow and can measure more than 6mm; and evolution — colour, size or shape changes.

Skin cancer diagnosis/tests Check your own skin monthly for moles and ask your doctor to check your whole body annually. If you spot a mole that has the warning signs of skin cancer (the ABCDEs above) or looks suspicious, see your doctor who will likely refer you to a dermatologist who specializes in skin cancer. She may do a biopsy to examine the mole and if it is cancer, will suggest treatment options.

Skin cancer treatment Basal and squamous cell carcinomas are easily removed by surgery and may require no further treatment. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy to kill cancer cells and prevent cancer from spreading may also be part of the treatment plan for skin cancer and melanoma.

Skin cancer prevention Minimize your exposure to the sun and sources of ultraviolet light to avoid harmful UV rays.


• Spend time in shaded spots when you’re outdoors and avoid the mid-day sun between 11a.m. and 4p.m.

• Cover up with long-sleeved clothing and a hat with a broad-rim if you’ll be in the sun for a prolonged period.

• Wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher with both UVA and UBV protection, applied liberally 15 to 30 minutes before being in the sun and after swimming and activity.?Never use indoor tanning lamps.

• Take extra precautions if you’re using medications, such as certain topical acne treatments, that make your skin more sensitive to UV rays.

• Examine your skin frequently and see your doctor right away if you notice any changes in your moles as mentioned above.



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