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Skin Cancer: Risk Factors, Warning Signs & Treatment

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What is Skin Cancer?

The skin is the largest organ in the human body. Skin cancer is by far the most common type of cancer in the world. In fact, studies show that one in every five Americans will develop it during their lifetime (x). The condition develops when abnormal skin cells develop and then grow uncontrollably. There are three major types of skin cancer: squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma and melanoma (x).

Skin cancer often occurs on areas often exposed to sun rays, but it can also develop in areas that don’t usually see sun exposure as well. People who live in sunny climates or work outdoor jobs are at an increased risk. Other risk factors include a personal or family history of skin cancer or sun damage. Researchers estimate that 40 to 50 percent of people with fair skin over the age of 65 will develop non-melanoma skin cancer. People with dark skin are also susceptible, but the risk is substantially lower (x).

The best way to prevent skin cancer is to avoid UV rays if possible or protect the skin during sun exposure. Early detection increases the chance for a successful treatment. Being aware of the signs can help patients identify it early. However, the signs differ depending on the form of cancer. 

Types of Skin Cancer

Skin cancer usually begins in the epidermis, the top layer of the skin. The epidermis is a thin layer that acts as a protective cover, continuously shedding and regrowing new cells. The epidermis is made up of three main types of cells that contribute to cancer (x):

  • Squamous cells just beneath the outer surface, functioning as the skin’s inner lining
  • Basal cells below the squamous cells, responsible for producing new skin cells
  • Melanocytes in the lower part of the epidermis, producing melanin

Listed below are three main categories of skin cancer based on these different cells: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.

Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC)

This is the most common type and doctors diagnose more than four million people in the United States with BCC. It’s a slow-developing cancer that occurs when basal cells grow abnormally in the outermost layer of the skin. It develops mostly on the backs of the hands, on the neck, the head and especially on the face. It can also appear on other parts of the body. BCC looks like a raised, waxy, pink bump or a translucent growth with blood vessels close to the skin’s surface (x, x, x).

Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)

SCC occurs when squamous cells begin to grow uncontrollably on the top layer of the epidermis. It can develop on the ears, lips, head, hands and neck. It has a distinctive appearance—an open sore or red patches. Squamous cell carcinoma can bleed or crust and it can even be fatal without treatment. There are over one million new cases of SCC each year in the United States (x, x).

Melanoma

Melanoma is a less common form of skin cancer, but it is by far the most dangerous because it can spread to other parts of the body very quickly. It can grow in almost any part of the body, even in the eyes. The condition causes a pigmented patch to grow, which may resemble an irregular-looking mole. When patients recognize it early, melanoma is usually treatable. However, without treatment, it can metastasize to other parts of the body, making it more difficult to treat and it can even be fatal. According to studies, in 2019, doctors expect an estimated 7,000 cases of melanoma in the United States (x).

Warning Signs of Skin Cancer 

Skin cancer primarily develops on areas exposed to the sun, such as the face, scalp, neck, chest, arms, hands, ears, lips and legs. It can also form in areas that rarely see sunlight like the palms, genital areas and beneath the fingernails or toenails. Symptoms vary depending on the type of skin cancer (x).

Signs of Basal Cell Carcinoma

Usually, basal cell carcinoma is not painful, growing very slowly on the body. It can often take a variety of forms. It may look waxy, smooth and pearly or it may be sunken in, with a solid red bump. It is often pink or white in people with fair skin and tan, black or brown in those with darker skin. Sometimes the growth can itch and bleed, developing a scab that starts healing but fails to heal completely. It may even look like a pale scar (x).

Signs of Squamous Cell Carcinoma 

Squamous cell carcinoma develops on areas with sun damage in patients with fair skin, such as the face, neck, scalp, arms, lower legs or on the backs of the hands. However, people with darker skin are more likely to develop SCC in areas that rarely see the sun, such as the lower legs, genitals and the torso. Squamous cell carcinoma is often a flat lesion with a crusted surface, colored pink or red. It may look scaly, with a hard, raised, scab-like surface. The growth feels tender to the touch and it may bleed sometimes (x).

Signs of Melanoma

Melanoma can be deadly if patients fail to identify it early before it spreads to other parts of the body. It can form on the scalp, genitals or even under the fingernails. It may affect a mole that the patient already has, changing its shape or color. It may also develop as a spot that looks like a sunspot or a freckle. On a fingernail or toenail, melanoma may cause a dark band underneath it or around it. Any growth or spot that changes in color or size may be a sign of melanoma, as well as one with an irregular border or asymmetrical shape (x).

Risk Factors for Skin Cancer

Skin cancer occurs as a result of mutations or defects in the DNA of skin cells. The mutations cause the cells to grow abnormally and eventually they form a mass of cancer cells. Research has not provided an explanation for why certain cells in the body become cancerous. However, studies have identified some risk factors (x).

Ultraviolet Light Radiation

UV damage is the leading cause of skin cancer. It comes from sunlight and artificial light in tanning beds. DNA controls how the body’s cells grow, divide and develop. When UV radiation damages the DNA in skin cells, it can lead to abnormal growth that can cause cancer. People who live in sunny areas or spend a lot of time outdoors are at a higher risk for skin cancer (x).

Complexion

Fair skin has less melanin, the pigment that protects the skin from harmful UV radiation. Those with light-colored eyes and fair skin that often freckles, tans or burns in the sun are more susceptible to developing skin cancer, particularly non-melanoma types (x).

Compromised Immune System

Patients with conditions that affect the immune system, such as HIV/AIDS, are at an increased risk because the body is not able to fight off infections or illness as effectively. People who take immunosuppressant medications after an organ transplant may also be at a higher risk (x).

Moles

People with large or abnormal moles are at a higher risk of melanoma. Usually moles are not present at birth, but they begin to develop in childhood or young adulthood. Abnormal moles are called dysplastic nevi and they are larger than regular moles, with abnormal shapes or colors (x, x).

Family or Personal History

A patient faces an increased risk for skin cancer if other family members have had it. Melanoma is also likely in an individual who has had the condition in the past. People who have also suffered from basal or squamous cell cancers are also at risk of developing melanoma. Those who experience frequent sunburns are at high risk, especially if they occur during childhood (x, x).

Gender

Men are twice as likely to develop basal cell carcinomas and three times as likely to develop SCC compared to women (x).

Age

The risk of skin cancer develops with age because people face more UV radiation exposure over time. It may also develop in young children who spend extensive time in the sun (x).

Risk Factors of Skin Cancer

Diagnosing Skin Cancer

If a patient goes to a dermatologist to determine if a growth or skin change is cancerous, the doctor will look at the patient’s skin. The doctor will look for any unusual spots, paying close attention to any abnormalities in size, shape, texture and color. Then the doctor performs a skin biopsy to remove part of the tissue and examine it under a microscope (x).

Treatment for Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is treatable if the patient detects it early enough. Treatment options vary depending on the depth, size, type and location of the cancer tissue. In some cases, the affected tissue is close to the surface of the skin. If this is the case, a doctor can get rid of the entire growth with just a skin biopsy and the patient may not require any more treatment. If the condition does require more treatment, there are several options (x).

Excisional Surgery 

This treatment is appropriate for any form of skin cancer. In this procedure, the surgeon numbs the area surrounding the mole, lesion or tumor and then cuts it out (x).

Mohs Micrographic Surgery

Dermatologists use this treatment for non-melanoma cases—basal and squamous cell carcinomas. It aims to conserve as much healthy skin as possible on certain parts of the body, such as the tip of the nose (x).

Radiation Therapy

This procedure uses high-powered energy rays to kill cancer cells. Usually, doctors will use radiation therapy if surgical procedures are not an option. For example, if the condition affects an area that is hard to reach, such as the eyelid, ear or tip of the nose, the patient may undergo radiation therapy. It may also prevent scarring (x).

Chemotherapy

In this treatment procedure, medication destroys the cancer cells. There are topical chemotherapy lotions or creams that the patient can apply directly on the skin (x).

Cryotherapy

Typically, doctors use this treatment for precancerous conditions or small non-melanoma forms. During the treatment, the doctor uses liquid nitrogen to freeze the cells, destroying them (x).

Although skin cancer can be treated, the best way for patients to protect themselves is to prevent it. Try to avoid sun exposure during the hottest times of the day. Cover the skin with long sleeves, pants and hats and wear sunscreen at all times during the day.

Supplements for Skin Health

Patients may also try supplements as a natural treatment option. However, supplements are not a cure for any condition. Rather, they can be effective in combination with other medical treatments and to boost skin health and immunity. Always consult a doctor before taking any supplements.

Zinc

One of the areas with the highest concentrations of zinc is the skin. It can help with different skin conditions, such as acne, and help heal wounds and burns. It can also help protect the skin from UV damage. As a dietary supplement, take 225 to 450 mg of zinc gluconate powder daily, or as directed by a physician. Use a milligram scale for accurate measurement.

Curcumin

Derived from turmeric, curcumin may reduce the risk of cancer. It may be able to prevent tumors from forming and keep cells from turning malignant. As a dietary supplement, take curcumin extract powder in one dose of 1,000 mg (½ tsp) per day, unless a doctor advises against it.

Resveratrol

Grape products contain resveratrol and it is present in the skin and seeds of grapes and berries. Studies show that it may be an effective method to prevent cancer cells from growing. As a dietary supplement, take one 500 mg pure resveratrol capsule per day or following a physician’s directions.

Vitamin A

Supplementing with Vitamin A can help boost skin health, treating dry skin and conditions like psoriasis. It also helps heal sores and wounds. As a dietary supplement, take 30 mg of Vitamin A palmitate powder once a day, unless a doctor recommends a different dosage.

Inositol Hexaphosphate (IP6)

Currently, researchers are studying inositol hexaphosphate for its potential in cancer prevention and treatment. Studies concluded that it may destroy cancer cells. It can also help boost the immune system to fight disease. Take 500 mg of inositol hexaphosphate powder once or twice per day with an empty stomach. Consult a doctor before taking the supplement.

The Bottom Line

Skin cancer affects the DNA in skin cells. The most common types of skin cancer are melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Exposure to UV radiation is the most significant risk factor for skin cancer. The best way to prevent skin cancer is to stay protected in the sun with layers of clothing and sunscreen. Early diagnosis of these types of cancers can help improve their symptoms.

Treatment options vary depending on the type of cancer, severity and location. Treatment includes chemotherapy, cryotherapy and radiation therapy. Lifestyle changes and natural therapies may also help manage symptoms in conjunction with other medical treatments. Natural remedies and supplements may help boost skin health, help it repair itself from wounds or burns and protect against UV damage. However, supplements are not a treatment for medical conditions. Instead, they may be effective if the patient uses them with other treatments. Always consult a doctor before starting a supplement regimen.

About the author

Dennis Njeru


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