Busting Skin Cancer Myths
- Skin cancer will affect one in five people under the age of 70, says the Skin Cancer Foundation.
- Luckily, with early detection, it is often highly treatable.
- Dr. Jesse Lewin, system chief of the Division of Dematologic and Cosmetic Surgery at Mount Sinai, busted some big myths about skin cancer.
- We know that sun exposure is cumulative, so one bad burn won’t necessarily cause cancer.
- And older people still do have to worry about developing skin cancer, so be sure to take precaution no matter your age.
- It’s less about which sunscreen brand you choose and more about applying it well and reapplying every two hours.
Can one bad sunburn cause cancer?Read More
What Is Skin Cancer?Skin cancer is the abnormal growth of cells in the skin. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States,” with nearly five million people treated for it every year.
There are three main types of skin cancer, ranging from the most mild to the most dangerous form:
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)
This is a highly treatable form of skin cancer. The basal cells are small, round cells in the lowest part of the epidermis, which is the skin’s outer layer. Cancer can begin in these cells, whose job is to create new cells as old ones die.
Approximately 3 million Americans a year are treated for BCC, including President Joe Biden. Biden, who spent a lot of time in the sun during his youth, has had BCC removed twice from his body.
BCC is often a slow-growing form of cancer, usually diagnosed under a microscope after the suspicious lesion or lump has been removed from the body. SurvivorNet explains that removal can happen in many ways, from surgery to freezing to laser removal.
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)
This forms in the squamous cells of the body. According to the National Cancer Institute, these cells are found on “the surface of the skin, the lining of the hollow organs of the body, and the lining of the respiratory and digestive tracts” – in other words, in various parts of your body.
Like BCC, it is usually treatable, but “it can be aggressive,” says the Mayo Clinic.
This is the most dangerous skin cancer. Essentially, this is a cancer of the melanocytes, the skin cells that produce melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color.
Dr. Cecilia Larocca, a dermatologist in the Centers of Melanoma and Cutaneous Oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, previously told SurvivorNet, “Melanoma gets lumped in together as a skin cancer. But it is quite different compared to squamous cell or basal cell.”
Many people are diagnosed with melanoma when they notice a new mole or a previous mole that has changed in appearance.
Only a biopsy can tell if the mole is cancerous or not. Dr. Larocca says, “On average, for about every 12 biopsies that they do, one of them turns out to be melanoma.”
READ MORE: Am I at High Risk for Melanoma?
Melanoma has the potential to be deadly if it moves beyond the skin and invades other organs.
However, Dr. Anna Pavlick, an oncologist at Weill Cornell Medicine, explained to SurvivorNet that people with stage 1 melanoma have a 90% chance of being cured and people with stage 2 have a 75-80% chance of being cured from surgical excision alone.
People with stage 3 have a 50% chance of being cured with only surgical excision, but there are also many other treatments that are available beyond surgery.
“It’s a very different world now than it was even five years ago,” she says of the medicine that can impact survival rates.
Who is at risk for skin cancer? Anyone who is exposed to sunlight, according to experts. That’s pretty much everybody.
It’s true, according to the CDC: “The most preventable cause of skin cancer is overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, either from the sun or from artificial sources like tanning beds.”
However, it is also true that some people are at more risk for several reasons. Dr. Lewin explains those risk factors as having:
- More than 50 moles
- A propensity to burn; for example, “if you’re a blonde or a redhead,” he says, this might be the case
- A history of melanoma in yourself or your family
- Sun exposure history, to natural sunlight or tanning bed
WATCH: 5 Ways to Prevent Skin Cancer
What Does Skin Cancer Look Like?
It’s important to know how to help identify skin cancer. In fact, skin cancer is a disease whose survival rates increase with early diagnosis and treatment, say SurvivorNet’s experts.
As the Skin Cancer Foundation puts it, “Skin cancer is the cancer you can see. Unlike cancers that develop inside the body, skin cancers form on the outside and are usually visible.”
It’s vital to do examinations of your skin regularly in order to catch problems before they become serious. Know that some skin cancer lumps can often be overlooked as a skin tag or pimple.
To help, Dr. Larocca offers the helpful ABCDE guideline to people performing skin checks:
- Asymmetrical moles: If you drew a line straight down the center of the mole, would the sides match?
- Borders: Is the mole irregular or jagged?
- Colors: Are there multiple distinct colors in the mole?
- Diameter: Is the mole larger than 6 millimeters (mm), about the size of a pencil head eraser?
- Evolution: Has the mole’s color, shape, or size changed over time?
3 Skin Cancer Myths, Busted
There are many misconceptions about skin cancer, so Dr. Lewin helped us dispel a few of them.
SKIN CANCER MYTH: One bad sunburn can cause cancer.
This is not true.
According to Dr. Lewin, that “sun exposure, starting at the age of 5 or at birth, accumulates in the cells.”
He adds, “It is a cumulative lifetime exposure that does lead to a non-melanoma skin cancer as well as a melanoma.”
Still, remember to always take precautions when exposed to the sun. Here are our expert tips for protecting your skin.
SKIN CANCER MYTH: People over the age of 50 don’t have to worry about skin cancer.
Yes, older people have to worry about developing skin cancer too.
“At the age of 40 or 44, there’s still a lot of runway” to develop cancer.
“So there’s still time to protect yourself,” Lewin stresses.
SKIN CANCER MYTH: Your brand of sunscreen matters.
There may be another factor more important than which brand of sunscreen you choose.
What actually matters, Dr. Lewin says, is how well and consistently that sunscreen is used.
“The key for sunscreen is really applying enough and reapplying,” he said.
He advises using “a nickel-sized sunscreen amount for your face and about an ounce for the body.”
Then, every two hours, you have to reapply the same amount to your skin and body.
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