Protect yourself by knowing the warning signs of skin cancer

Many people are familiar with melanoma, one of the most deadly forms of skin cancer, but are you aware that there are other, more common types of skin cancer that you should be watching for? As we prepare for warmer weather, it is important to know how to prevent and detect skin cancer.

An ounce of prevention

Sun avoidance is key to preventing the development of skin cancer. Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure, such as from the sun or indoor tanning beds, is a known risk factor for the development of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers, especially in fair-skinned individuals.

Avoiding tanning beds, staying out of peak sun exposure (during the mid-day), seeking shade, and wearing long sleeves, pants, and a wide-brimmed hat are your best bets to keep your skin looking younger for longer and for the prevention of skin cancer.

If must expose your skin to the sun, using a sunscreen is helpful. Daily use of a broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB blocking) sunscreen is recommended. In the summer months, a minimum SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 is suggested, but the higher the SPF number, the better. If you use moisturizer or make-up, look for products that contain a sunscreen, and you can skip daily application of a second product to your face. Application of an adequate amount of sunscreen is also important to achieve the desired effect. Approximately one ounce (two tablespoons) is the amount of sunscreen required for one full body application. A thin coat of sunscreen can provide one half or less of the labeled SPF. Check to make sure that your sunscreen is not expired. Even if your sunscreen is labeled as water-resistant, be sure to reapply frequently, especially if you are perspiring or swimming.

Get to know your skin

I recommend a full body self skin examination once per month. Pick a day of the month that is easy to remember, such as the first of the month, or another number of personal significance. If you “know your spots,” it is easier to recognize and treat potential skin cancers at an earlier stage.

Know the warning signs of skin cancer

The most common type of skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma. This is a slow growing skin cancer, but can be locally destructive if left untreated. This presents most commonly as a fragile, pimple-like bump that bleeds easily. This cancer fails to heal like a normal pimple would. Scaly, pink or red patches of skin that do not respond to moisturizer may also be a warning sign basal cell carcinoma.

The next most common type is skin cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. This can present as a scaly, sandpapery, rough patch of skin that fails to respond to moisturizer. It may also present as a new or rapidly growing lump on the skin, sometimes with a crusty center.

A less common, but more dangerous form of skin cancer is melanoma. An easy to remember mnemonic device highlights the warning signs of melanoma – look for the “ABCDEs."

IHA ABCDEs for checking moles

It is also helpful to look for the “ugly duckling” or “black sheep” of your moles or spots. If you have a mole that stands out from the rest of your moles, a professional should examine it.

Other rare forms of non-melanoma skin cancer also occur, such as merkel cell carcinoma or tumors of sweat glands and oil glands.

A baseline visit with a board-certified dermatologist is recommended to screen for any potentially concerning lesions. Your dermatologist can provide further education about how to perform a self-skin examination, will discuss your individual risk factors for skin cancer, and can help you to design a plan for sun protection.

To schedule an appointment with an IHA Dermatologist, please call 734.677.DERM (3376) or make an appointment.

Jessica M. Ghaferi, MD, FAAD, FASDP, is a board-certified dermatologist and dermatopathologist. Dr. Ghaferi has also received additional training in cosmetic dermatology. She has published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology and has presented her work at national meetings.