Skin Cancer: What You Need to Know

Learn what causes skin cancer, including lifestyle factors, and see what you can be doing to reduce your risk

Photo: Woman reading in the sun

For many adults, childhood memories from summer beach days are particularly dear. That is, with the exception of the screaming, blistering sunburn that sometimes came with it from a lack of proper sun protection.

A lot has been done to better protect the skin from harmful UV rays since our parents' generation. But consequences from too much exposure—namely, skin cancer—continue to be a problem. In fact, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, and rates continue to rise. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, an estimated 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime.

The good news is that majority of skin cancers are preventable and treatable when detected early.

The Basics
There are two main categories of skin cancer: melanoma and nonmelanoma. Melanoma (also known as 'malignant melanoma'), is less common than nonmelanoma, but it is much more dangerous—one person dies in the United States every hour from melanoma. The two most common types of nonmelanoma skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. More than 4 million cases of basal cell carcinoma occur in the United States each year.

Melanoma often looks like or develops from a mole. It is usually asymmetrical, has an uneven border, an irregular color, or changed in size and shape.

Basal cell carcinoma may look like a pimple, lump or an open or nonhealing sore. It might display as reddish patches, shiny bumps or discolored patches of skin.

The best way to detect skin cancer is by having a dermatologist perform regular skin exams to learn what your skin and moles look like. Then it's easy to spot changes so you can alert your doctor. Annual skin exams by a dermatologist are also helpful, especially if you have a lot of moles, as they are trained experts and know what irregularities to look for on your skin.

The prevalence of diagnosed skin cancer has increased over the last 10 years, and prevention is more important than ever. According to Dr. Mona Mofid, a dermatologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital, the increase in the disease's prevalence can be attributed to the deteriorating ozone layer. This has increased the UV radiation that reaches the earth, along with pollution.

The incidence of melanoma has increased nearly 20 percent among Hispanics in the last two decades. "Contrary to popular belief, skin cancer is not just for fair- or light-skinned people," Mofid says. "People of all races are affected; in fact, that's what Bob Marley died of."

To reduce the chance of getting skin cancer, individuals should take the following precautions:

  • Avoid tanning beds. Just one tanning session increases skin cancer risk by 70 percent.
  • Cover up. Wear protective clothing when outside, including long sleeves, a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.
  • Seek out shade. The sun's rays do the most damage between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
  • Choose your sunscreen carefully. Sunscreens should prevent against both UVA and UVB rays. Look for something that is water resistant with at least SPF 30. A lip balm with SPF is essential, too.
  • Apply sunscreen correctly. Adults should apply two tablespoons of sunscreen about 15-30 minutes before heading outside and every two hours after. If swimming or sweating excessively, reapply more frequently.
  • Don't forget hard-to-reach spots. People almost universally forget their hands, scalp, ears and feet when applying sunscreen.