Avoid sunburn, check skin regularly to prevent skin cancers
Dr. Carl Bigler is a dermatologist with the Page Hospital Visiting Specialist Program
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer. Over 3.5 million cases are seen yearly in the United States. Many days of sunshine, outdoor lifestyle, warm weather, southern location, and mountains and lakes in Arizona make skin cancer more likely in our state and region. Skin cancer is more common in people with lightly colored skin.
There are two major types of skin cancer: melanoma and non-melanoma. Melanoma can spread and kill if not detected early. Luckily, melanoma is much less common than non-melanoma skin cancer. Melanoma may be from sunburn in childhood and teenage years and, for this reason, is often seen on the back and legs. It does run in families. Melanoma is rare in children but appears in young adults and increases with age. Melanoma is prevented if sunburn is prevented. This is particularly true for children and teenagers. Sun protection includes clothing, hats, and avoiding sunlight in the middle of the day when sunlight is most intense. Sunscreen is also helpful.
In adults, early detection of melanoma may be life-saving. Change is the most important feature in early melanoma detection. Most early melanomas are flat like an ink spot or tattoo and change from month to month. Any new or changing dark spot that is getting darker and larger should be seen by a physician. Melanomas often have more jagged edges and a variety of colors when compared to moles. Most early melanomas are cured by surgical removal.
Non-melanoma skin cancer destroys skin almost like a cavity destroys teeth but rarely spreads and kills. These skin cancers are often seen on the face, neck, arms, or bald scalp with years of exposure and light skin color. Daily sun protection can prevent some of these skin cancers even in older people.
Unlike melanoma, non-melanoma skin cancer is usually skin-colored to red. It may be smooth to scaly. Like all cancer, it gets larger over time. Eventually it may bleed or form a sore that does not heal. It gets more destructive if not treated early.
Like rattlesnakes, skin cancer is a hazard of life in the Southwest. Being careful with sun exposure and examining yourself and loved ones on a regular basis can reduce this risk. Early treatment is easy and effective. Later treatment is more difficult and, for melanoma, can sometimes be “a little too late.”
Reviewed February 2011