Our skin is there to protect us against heat, light, infection, and injury. But we don’t always give it the attention it deserves, particularly when it comes to protecting it against the sun.
In addition to its protective functions, the skin also stores water, fat, and vitamin D–quite a useful organ, indeed!
We often treat burns and cuts, but often ignore other skin issues, such as minor bruises or lesions. Yet, some lesions that don’t seem to heal may be a sign of something more serious.
Skin cancer is a disease in which malignant cells develop in the outer layers of the skin. This form of cancer can occur anywhere on the body, but it is most common in areas that are commonly exposed to sunlight, including the face, neck, and extremities. The appearance of skin cancer can vary, but any time a change there is a change in texture or color to the skin without a known or suspected cause, such as a scrape, bruise, or burn, the occurrence should be taken seriously. The most common sign of cancer is a change on surface of the skin, such as a growth or a sore that will not heal. In some cases, it may manifest as a small lump that can be smooth, shiny and waxy looking, or red to reddish brown. Skin cancer may also appear as a flat red spot that is rough or scaly.
The three most common skin cancers are squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, and malignant melanoma.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
This shows as a firm, irregular fleshy growth usually areas of skin exposed to sun . The growth can increase rapidly in size, which can cause a large lump that can in some cases break down to form an ulcer. If left untreated, this type of cancer may spread to the surrounding lymph glands.
Squamous cell carcinoma appears more often in elderly patients. Chronic exposure to sunlight is an important contributing factor in the development of this type of skin cancer.
Basal Cell Carcinoma
This is a slow-growing, painless skin cancer. It often presents as an indolent ulcer, often pigmented, with a shiny or translucent raised edge. This cancer more commonly appears on the face.
This is a cancer of the pigment cells of the skin and is highly malignant. It shows as a dark brown or black skin growth or ulcer. It may look like an ordinary mole, but unlike a common mole:
- It grows rapidly
- Its surface has several shades of red, black or blue colors.
- Its margin is irregular.
- It tends to be large.
- It tends to be thick.
Melanoma is a more serious type of cancer than the more common skin cancers, basal cell cancer or squamous cell cancer, which begin in the basal or squamous cells of the epidermis. A doctor should be seen if any of the following warning signs of melanoma are exhibited:
- change in the size, shape, or color of a mole;
- oozing or bleeding from a mole;
- or a mole that feels itchy, hard, lumpy, swollen, or tender to the touch.
Melanoma can also appear on the body as a new mole and more commonly occurs on the fingers, toes and face. Men most often get melanoma on the trunk, the head, or the neck. Women tend to get melanoma more often on the arms and legs.
Fortunately, melanoma is highly curable if treated prior to the onset of the vertical growth phase, which has the potential to metastasize, or spread.
Skin Cancer Causes
Sunburn and Sunlight Overexposure to the sun can lead to sunburn, but the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays also have the potential to damage your skin and induce skin cancer. Other factors increasing risk are heredity and environment.
However, the total amount of sun received over the years and overexposure that leads to sunburn are the most common causes of skin cancer.
The skin’s protective reaction to prevent further injury from the sun’s UV rays is to tan. However, tanning does not prevent skin cancer and skin cancer tends to be very slow to develop. So, last weekend’s sunburn a decade or more to become skin cancer.
The amount of UV light that makes it through the atmosphere today is higher than it was a century ago. Other influencing factors to UV exposure include elevation, latitude, and cloud cover. Ultraviolet light is more intense as elevation increases. as there is less atmosphere to serve as a flilter.
1. American Academy of Dermatology: http://web.archive.org/web/20041101215402/
2. National Toxicology Program Advisory Group: http://web.archive.org/web/20041101215402/
3.Vanderbilt University Psychology Department: http://web.archive.org/web/20041101215402/
4. Centers for Disease Control: