Skin Cancer Risk Factors and Symptoms

Regularly check all areas of skin for new or changing growths. Pay special attention to moles, the palms of your hands, soles of your feet and the genital area.

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A lesion that bleeds easily, itches or is discolored may be a sign of skin cancer. Nonmelanoma skin cancers typically look like normal moles, but can have ragged, blurred or irregular borders and a color that includes shades of tan, brown, black, blue, red or white.

Risk Factors

A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of developing cancer. Some risk factors are within your control, like how much sun you get and your family medical history. Others are not, such as your age or the genes you were born with.

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and from tanning beds is the main risk factor for skin cancer, including melanoma. UVR damages your skin’s natural defence, the melanin that helps to protect you from the sun’s damaging rays. This damage causes cells to become abnormal and start growing out of control.

Your skin colour and your tendency to sunburn are also important risk factors for melanoma. People with fair skin (blond or red hair, light-coloured eyes) and a tendency to freckle or burn easily are at higher risk of getting skin cancer because they have less melanin in their skin to protect them. People with dark skin have a lower risk of melanoma because the melanin in their skin offers more protection from the sun.

Having a large number of moles or having one very unusually-shaped or coloured mole (called a dysplastic nevus) is a risk factor for melanoma. This is because some of these moles can become melanoma, particularly if they are not treated early when they are precancerous. You are also at increased risk of melanoma if you have had a previous melanoma or any other type of skin cancer.

Symptoms

Skin cancer symptoms can vary, depending on the type. The best early warning sign is any change in an existing mole or a new growth that appears on sun-exposed areas of the skin. Some changes may look like a scaly or crusty bump that doesn’t heal or bleeds easily. Other spots can appear as a sore that looks see-through, shiny or pink or pearly white and might itch or grow rapidly.

Basal and squamous cell carcinomas may form in the outer layer of skin or in an existing mole on sun-exposed areas of the face, neck, ears or hands. These nonmelanoma cancers are less dangerous than melanoma but they can also spread quickly.

In squamous cell carcinoma, cells develop mutations and start growing out of control, forming a lump or thickened area that can bleed or become crusty and then ulcerate (break open). These lesions occur mostly on areas exposed to the sun, especially in people with fair skin. They can also occur on the lower legs of men and on the palms, soles of feet and genitals of women.

Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer and can be deadly if not treated early. It forms in the cells that produce pigment (color) in your skin, hair and eyes. Melanoma can also spread to lymph nodes and deeper tissues in the body.

Diagnosis

Skin cancers usually appear as a growth on your skin that changes in size, shape or color. Your doctor will examine any spots or moles and compare them to others you have. They may also look for the ABCDE warning signs of melanoma: Asymmetry, Border irregularity, Color change and Evolving (growing or changing quickly). They will use a special instrument to cut out a circular piece of the spot, a technique called a punch biopsy. They might also take a small sample of the healthy surrounding skin, or the entire abnormal area, and stitch it closed using soluble stitches that dissolve on their own.

The most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, which start in the outermost layer of your skin. These can be cured if they are found early and treated properly. Melanoma, which starts in cells called melanocytes that produce the pigment that gives your skin its color and protects against some of the sun’s damaging rays, is more dangerous than either of these other types of skin cancer.

Regularly check all parts of your body for new or changing spots, especially any that itch, bleed, hurt or swell. Get to know your skin and pay particular attention to your scalp, ears, the palms of your hands, the soles of your feet, and the areas between your fingers and toes.

Treatment

Normally, old skin cells die and new ones grow to replace them. But sometimes these cells grow out of control and form a mass (cancer) that may spread to other tissues and organs. If caught and treated early, most skin cancers are cured.

The type of skin cancer you have determines your treatment options. Most basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas can be treated in your doctor’s office or with outpatient surgery. Other treatments include chemotherapy, radiation therapy and immunotherapy.

Melanoma is more serious than other types of skin cancer, and it often spreads to other parts of the body. It starts in melanocytes, which are pigment cells that give the skin its color. It usually occurs in the top layer of the epidermis. It can look like a mole or a scaly, red or pink patch of skin that may bleed and itch.

The most common treatment for skin cancer is surgery to remove the tumor and a margin of healthy tissue around it (excisional surgery). You may also need a skin graft. If the cancer is thick and has spread, additional therapies such as chemotherapy or immunotherapy may be needed. Your doctors will discuss the best treatment options for you based on your diagnosis and symptoms.