You might slather on the sunscreen today, but were you a sunbathing beauty back in your teens? Whether you’ve been sun safety savvy for decades or recently realized the error of your sun-worshiping ways, it’s important to know your own skin.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States with more than 3.5 million cancers in more than two million people diagnosed each year. That’s more new cases than breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers combined.
The National Women’s Health Information Center (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) says the good news is that skin cancer is nearly 100% curable if found early and treated promptly.
So what should you be looking for?
Basal and Squamous Cell Cancers
These skin cancers are most often found in areas that get exposed to a lot of sun – think you head, neck and arms. Together these skin cancers are the first and second most common types.
Basal cell carcinomas often look like flat, firm, pale areas on your skin. They can also appear as small, raised, pink or red, translucent, shiny, waxy areas that may bleed after a minor injury. Some basal cell carcinomas have an indented center and blue, brown, or black areas.
Squamous cell carcinomas can look like growing lumps – typically with a rough, scaly, or crusted surface. They can also appear as flat reddish patches in the skin that grow slowly.
Melanomas are less common than basal and squamous cell cancers, but melanomas are more likely to be deadly. One person dies of melanoma every hour. When caught early (before the tumor has penetrated the skin) the survival rate is 99%. The survival rate falls to just 15% for those with advanced disease.
The most important warning sign for melanoma is a new spot on the skin that’s changing in size, shape, or color. Experts also suggest looking for any spot on your skin that’s different from any of your other spots or freckles – known as the ugly duckling sign. If you have any of these warning signs you should have your skin checked by your doctor.
Another rule of thumb for melanomas is the ABCD Rule. Watch for the following signs and tell your doctor about any spots that match these descriptions:
- A is for Asymmetry: One half of a mole or birthmark doesn’t match the other.
- B is for Border: The edges are irregular, ragged, notched, or blurred.
- C is for Color: The color is not the same all over and may include shades of brown or black, sometimes with patches of pink, red, white, or blue.
- D is for Diameter: The spot is larger than six millimeters across (about ¼ inch – the size of a pencil eraser), although melanomas can sometimes be smaller.
Please note not all melanomas will follow the ABCD Rule (or any rule, for that matter), so be sure to tell your doctor about any changes in your skin.