Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States, but it is also a very preventable illness. Understand your risk and find out what steps you can take to keep your skin healthy year-round.
More than 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer every day in the U.S. In fact, more people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer every year than all other cancers combined.
However, while skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the country, it is also a very preventable illness. As we observe Skin Cancer Awareness Month this May, let’s take an in-depth look at the disease as well as the steps that individuals can take to help reduce their risk.
Not All Skin Cancers are Created Equal
While the term skin cancer is used to describe any disease in which cancer cells form in the skin, it is important to understand that there are several types of skin cancer, each characterized by different risk factors, symptoms, and treatments.
Squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma are the most common types of skin cancer. These cancers develop in the squamous and basal cells of the skin, respectively, and are collectively referred to as nonmelanoma skin cancer. The National Cancer Institute notes that risk factors for nonmelanoma skin cancer include:
- Exposure to natural or artificial sunlight, including tanning beds, over a long period of time
- Fair complexion
- Actinic keratosis (rough, scaly patches of skin that develop after exposure to sunlight)
- Past treatment with radiation
- Medicines or medical conditions that suppress the immune system
- Exposure to arsenic
Once diagnosed, nonmelanoma skin cancer can often be successfully treated using one of eight standard treatment options: surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, photodynamic therapy, immunotherapy, target therapy, chemical peel, or other drug therapy. Many celebrities have battled nonmelanoma skin cancer, including Melanie Griffith, William H. Macy, Anderson Cooper, and Hugh Jackman, who now uses his platform as a world-renowned actor to raise awareness about the disease.
Melanoma is the most aggressive form of skin cancer. Although it accounts for less than one percent of skin cancer cases, it can be deadly if not detected and treated early. The National Cancer Institute has identified the following risk factors for melanoma:
- Exposure to natural or artificial sunlight, including tanning bed, over a long period of time
- Fair complexion
- History of blistering sunburns as a child or teenager
- Having several large or many small moles
- Having a family history of unusual moles or melanoma
Health care providers often use a combination of the five standard treatment options to treat melanoma, depending on the stage at which the cancer is diagnosed, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy.
New diagnostic and treatment options for both nonmelanoma skin cancer and melanoma are currently being studied by researchers around the world, including the National Foundation for Cancer Research’s (NFCR) own James P. Basilion, PhD, professor of radiology, biomedical engineering, and pathology at Case Western Reserve University, and Daniel Von Hoff, MD, physician-in-chief and distinguished professor at the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix, Ariz.
Know What to Look For and How to Reduce Your Risk
While having a fair complexion can increase a person’s risk for developing both nonmelanoma skin cancer and melanoma, people of all races and ethnicities can get skin cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, a change on the skin is the most common sign of skin cancer, including:
- A new growth on the skin
- A sore that does not heal
- A change in an old growth
To help detect skin cancer early, individuals should regularly examine the skin on all surfaces of the body for changes, including a new mole or growth, changes in old growths or scars, changes in color, sores that do not heal, or dark bands across the nails. If you notice any of these changes on your skin, be sure to talk with your health care provider.
Although detecting skin cancer early is a great way to help ensure successful treatment, preventing the cancer from occurring is even better. Check out the NFCR’s blog post 8 Facts You Need to Know About Skin Cancer for tips and advice to help reduce your risk of developing skin cancer, including how to practice safe sunning by wearing sunscreen, avoid indoor tanning salons, and get your skin checked regularly by your health care provider.
For more information about skin cancer and NFCR’s ongoing research in this field, check out our Skin Cancer webpage.