Dangers of Skin Cancer

MelanomaWhich state has the highest per capita prevalence of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer? A good guess may be Florida or the sun-drenched states of the Southwest, but it’s actually Oregon. Even in a state with months of overcast skies and drizzle, skin cancer is a pervasive and potentially deadly disease.

Oregon’s statistics are convincing evidence that regardless of where you live, you are at risk for skin cancer. Skin cancer can develop in anyone, anywhere. Young, healthy people – even those with dark skin, hair, and eyes – can develop skin cancer. In the US alone, there are more than one million new cases of skin cancer diagnosed each year.

Skin cancer can be divided into 2 major groups: nonmelanoma and melanoma. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common nonmelanoma skin cancer, followed by squamous cell carcinoma. Seventy-five percent of all diagnosed skin cancers are of the basal cell variety. This form of nonmelanoma is highly treatable if diagnosed early. In contrast, melanoma is one of the rarer forms of skin cancer, but because it is the leading cause of death from skin disease, it is particularly concerning.

Basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma both start in the top layers of the skin, where the ultraviolet rays from the sun (or tanning beds) focus directly. The lesions of these types of skin cancer are generally painless, although some may become tender. The majority of cases of basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma slowly grow on skin that is regularly exposed to sunlight. A new skin growth that does not heal, is red and scaly, and/or bleeds easily may indicate basal or squamous cell carcinoma. Your risk for this type of skin cancer is higher if you have light-colored skin, blue or green eyes, blond or red hair, or a history of blistering sunburns. Basal cell carcinoma rarely spreads to other parts of the body, but squamous cell carcinoma (especially on the head and neck region), may invade the nerves and lymph nodes.

Conversely, melanoma can appear anywhere on the body, even where there is no sun exposure. Would you believe that some of the most aggressive forms can appear on the feet? Melanoma can metastasize throughout the body, making the disease difficult to treat and ultimately deadly. Scientists agree that melanoma patients appear to have a very strong genetic predisposition that is triggered by environmental factors such as tanning beds or continued exposure to the sun.

A popular method for remembering the signs and symptoms of melanoma is with the "ABCDE" mnemonic:
•    Asymmetrical mole or skin lesion
•    Border of the lesion is irregular
•    Color – melanomas may be multicolored
•    Diameter – moles larger than 6 mm
•    Enlarging, Elevated, or Evolving (changing) moles or skin lesions

I encourage all of my patients to be alert to any new or suspicious-looking lesions or moles on their skin. Most skin blemishes are not cancerous, so there is no reason to panic. But you should notify your physician if anything on your skin looks unusual. 

Published on 07/20/2009 | Last updated on 12/20/2016