May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month and a good time to go back to basics of what to look for and how to better ensure that skin cancer is not in your future. Here are the basics or as Dermatology refers to the A B C D E's of skin cancer.
The first five letters of the alphabet are a guide to help you recognize the warning signs of melanoma.
A is for Asymmetry.
Most melanomas are asymmetrical. If you draw a line through the middle of the lesion, the two halves don't match, so it looks different from a round to oval and symmetrical common mole.
B is for Border.
Melanoma borders tend to be uneven and may have scalloped or notched edges, while common moles tend to have smoother, more even borders.
C is for Color.
Multiple colors are a warning sign. While benign moles are usually a single shade of brown, a melanoma may have different shades of brown, tan or black. As it grows, the colors red, white or blue may also appear.
D is for Diameter or Dark.
While it's ideal to detect a melanoma when it is small, it's a warning sign if a lesion is the size of a pencil eraser (about 6 mm, or ¼ inch in diameter) or larger. Some experts say it is also important to look for any lesion, no matter what size, that is darker than others. Rare, amelanotic melanomas are colorless.
E is for Evolving.
Any change in size, shape, color or elevation of a spot on your skin, or any new symptom in it, such as bleeding, itching or crusting, may be a warning sign of melanoma.
Types of Skin Cancer
Basal Cell Carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common form of skin cancer, with about 4 million cases diagnosed in the U.S. every year. This kind of tumor arises from the skin's basal cells. BCCs are uncontrolled growths that can appear as open sores, scars, shiny bumps or red patches. BCCs are usually caused by a combination of cumulative and intense, intermittent sun exposure.
The good news is that BCCs rarely spread to other organs. However, if a tumor is not spotted early or properly treated, it can be locally destructive and cause significant scarring or even disfigurement.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is second to BCC in prevalence, but still affects more than 1 million people in the U.S. every year. These tumors arise from squamous cells, and can manifest as scaly red patches, warts or open sores. They may crust or bleed.
SCCs are more dangerous than BCCs, as they have the potential to metastasize if not detected and treated at an early stage. Prevention is key, SCCs are mainly caused by cumulative ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure over the course of a lifetime.
Melanoma is perhaps the best-known type of skin cancer, it is the most dangerous form of the disease. Arising from pigment-producing melanocytes, melanomas can become very hard to treat and even be fatal if allowed to progress. If the cancer is caught early, however, a patient has an estimated 5-year survival rate of 99 percent. That is why knowing how to recognize a potential melanoma and then getting yourself to a dermatologist is so important.
The majority of melanomas appear black or dark brown, but they can also appear pink, white, red, blue or purple.
There can be a genetic component to melanoma; people whose first-degree relatives have had melanoma are at far greater risk of developing the disease. However, your habits in the sun are just as important: Intense, occasional UV exposure, that leave you with a sunburn, can trigger tumors; on average, a person's risk for melanoma doubles if he or she has had more than five sunburns.
What You Can Do
- Check yourself: No matter your risk, examine your skin head-to-toe once a month to identify potential skin cancers early. Take note of existing moles or lesions that grow or change. Learn how to check your skin here.
- When in doubt, check it out. Because melanoma can be so dangerous once it advances, follow your instincts and visit your doctor if you see a spot that just doesn't seem right.
- Keep in mind that while important, monthly self-exams are not enough. See your dermatologist at least once a year for a professional skin exam.
- If you've had a melanoma, follow up regularly with your doctor once treatment is complete. Stick to the schedule your doctor recommends so that you will find any recurrence as early as possible.