A glowing, tanned complexion seems healthy, but when achieved through unprotected exposure to the sun, it an be dangerous or even deadly. That’s because changes in skin color, such as tans and sunburns, may indicate damage to skin cells caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This can trigger mutations in skin cells and lead to cancer.
Skin cancer affects more than 1 million Americans every years; most – but not all – cases are considered to be sun related. There are three main forms of the disease. The most common kind, basal cell carcinoma, usually appears as a pearly, round, reddish bump or a scarlike lesion. Curable 99 percent of the time, this cancer has an extremely slow growth rate and usually does not spread to other parts of the body. If the bump is firm and red or if the lesion has a scaly, crusty surface, it’s probably a squamous cell carcinoma. This cancer may grow and spread rapidly, but it’s readily curable if diagnosed early. (Only 1 percent of squamous cell carcinomas are deadly).
The most serious type of skin cancer is melanoma, which affects nearly 60,000 people each year. Compared with the other kinds, melanoma spreads more rapidly and is more resistant to treatments, such as chemotherapy. This cancer affects the melanocytes, pigment-producing cells in the skin, and appears as a flat, brown patch with uneven edges; a black or gray lump; or a raised brown patch with spots.
Because the majority of skin cancers are detected by patients themselves, experts recommend that all people know the ABCDEs of the disease. Look for moles that are asymmetrical (A) in shape, have blurry or jagged borders (B), become lighter or darker in color (C), are larger than ¼ inch in diameter (D), and/or are evolving, that is, changes (E), or raised above the skin’s surface. A dermatologist can take a biopsy of the suspect mole to test for cancer. Most skin cancers are easily treated by removing the affected skin with surgery, such as cryosurgery (freezing off a small patch) or laser surgery. If the cancer has spread, radiation therapy or chemotherapy may be required.
1. Because the sun’s rays are strongest from 10:00 a.m to 4:00 p.m., the American Cancer Society recommends staying in the shape as much as possible during those hours.
2. Up to 80 percent of UV radiation passes through clouds, so sunscreen is needed even on gray, drizzly days.