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Spotting Skin Cancer

 

Skin cancer can be very serious and it does not discriminate. Just last week former Pittsburg Steelers coach Bill Cowher lost his wife, Kaye, to skin cancer.  She was only 54 years old. 

One in five Americans will develop skin cancer, a disease which is most prevalent in people over age 30, regardless of race or skin tone.  The good news is that most skin cancers are highly treatable if identified early.  Knowing when a spot on your skin may be cancerous is key to early detection. 

Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer because it often spreads to other tissues, and the incidence of melanoma has increased by over 600% in the last 50 years. Melanomas can  have some distinctive characteristics, and physicians generally use the ABCDE rule for identifying this dangerous form of skin cancer. 

  • A = Is the spot ASYMMETRICAL?
  • B = Does it have an irregular BORDER?
  • C = Is it variable in COLOR?
  • D = Is the DIAMETER greater than 6 mm (approximately the size of a pencil eraser)?
  • E  = Has the spot EVOLVED or changed and does it have a raised ELEVATION?

The other two types of skin cancer, basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers, will not necessarily follow the ABCDE rule, but they may have some of the same characteristics.  And, these two types of skin cancer are the MOST COMMON CANCER IN WOMEN AGE 25-29!

Basal cell is the most common type of skin cancer. It tends to spread more locally, and is typically the most difficult to recognize as skin cancer because the changes are not as distinct as what you see in a melanoma.  Basal cell skin cancers identifying characteristics are pearly borders and little blood vessels within the region. They can bleed easily, and most are found on the head and neck.

Squamous cell skin cancer tends to evolve from precancerous moles.  Physicians easily identify precancerous moles and often recommend proactive mole removal or treatment.

The Best Defense is Offense

You should always take measures to protect yourself from the sun using sunscreen, shade or clothing because no amount of sun exposure is “safe” there are no “safe” rays as advertised by some tanning salons.   A tan is the skin’s way of protecting against further sunburn.

When it comes to sunscreen, more is better and most people do not use enough sunscreen.  Plan to use 1 Teaspoon for your face and 2 Tablespoons for the rest of the body. 

The same application pitfall applies to sunscreen sprays.  While they are effective, most people do not apply a thick enough coat of sunscreen using the spray, leaving their skin vulnerable. Also, note that sunscreens are only effective up to SPF 50 – any higher and you do not get any more benefit.

Overall, a good rule of thumb is to have a primary care physician or dermatologists look at your skin every year to note changes.  It is also a very good idea to see a physician if you notice anything abnormal with your skin between physician visits. See your physician if you have a sore that won’t heal.

Between you and your physician, you will generally be able to identify most problems early.

Michele Casey is a primary care physician will Falls Pointe Medical Group. She is currently working on a fellowship in advanced wilderness medicine.

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