If you go by fundraisers and headlines, you might assume that breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer. In reality, more people receive a skin cancer diagnosis than all other cancers combined. Around 20 percent of all Americans develop skin cancer at some point in their lives. And, nearly half of Americans who make it to their 65th birthday will get skin cancer.
The good news is that protecting your skin against the sun significantly reduces your skin cancer risk. This post describes the different types of skin cancers and how to protect yourself against them.
What Is Skin Cancer?
When skin cells become damaged, they may mutate or become defective. If that happens, your body may respond with uncontrolled, rapid skin cell growth. Normally, your body sheds skin cells at the same rate it creates them. But in this process, your body cannot shed the cells fast enough. When that happens, tumors form.
The most common cause of skin cancer is ultraviolet radiation (commonly known as UV rays). Exposure to UV rays may happen naturally, via sunshine, or unnaturally, by using tanning beds.
There are four types of skin cancer.
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)
This is the most common type of skin cancer, with over 4 million cases in the United States every year. It occurs in the basal cells (hence the name) of the deepest epidermal layer. BCC very rarely spreads to other parts of the body. However, although it is exceedingly unlikely that a BCC diagnosis will be fatal, it can be disfiguring if left untreated.
In appearance, BCC may resemble a red open sore, pink growth, shiny bump, scar, or red patch. Typically, basal cell carcinoma occurs as the result of cumulative sun exposure.
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)
The second most common type of skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma occurs in the outermost layer of the epidermis. It may also be called cutaneous SCC. The appearance may resemble an open sore, wart, or red patch. But, it may also present as a raised growth with a depression or dip in the center.
If not treated, SCC has a 1.5 percent mortality rate. Cumulative, prolonged exposure to UV rays is the primary cause. Although they may form anywhere, growths occur most often in areas that receive direct sunlight.
Although not nearly as common as BCC or SCC, melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. It typically forms within melanocytes, the cells responsible for melanin production. It may also form in your eyes and internal organs, but this is much less common. Melanoma resemble asymmetrical moles that are dark or black in color.
Unfortunately, the American Cancer Society estimates that one melanoma patient dies every hour in the United States. However, as with every other cancer, catching melanoma early greatly increases your odds of survival. Early detection brings the survival rate to almost 99 percent. That’s a great argument for self-screening.
Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC)
This rare form of skin cancer carries a high risk of metastasizing (spreading throughout the body). It is also likely to recur, typically within two years of the initial diagnosis. Age and fair skin are the main risk factors, with risk increasing after age 50.
The nodules are firm and may be skin-colored, red, blue, or purple, and are generally painless. Detected early, these carcinomas are treatable. MCC is extremely rare; melanoma affects 40 times more people. However, MCC is also about three times more likely to be fatal because it spreads so quickly. Again, early detection is key.
Early Detection Is Key
When it comes to any kind of cancer, the importance of early detection cannot be overstated. And when it comes to skin cancer, the person with the best chance of detecting it is you.
Regular self-examination is how you know when something changes. In this instance, “regular” means monthly. You should also visit a dermatologist once a year. During those visits, you can tell your doctor what’s normal. If you discover any changes during your monthly self-screening, don’t wait for your yearly appointment. Call your doctor right away.
The Melanoma Research Foundation offers a terrific resource for self-screening; all you need is a mirror. Basically, you start at one end – head or toes – and make your way to the other end. And yes, you have to inspect all the nooks and crannies to complete a truly thorough check.
How to Reduce Your Risk of Skin Cancer
The number one skin cancer risk, by far, is UV exposure. Other risk factors include:
- Blond or red hair
- Blue or green eyes
- Fair skin
- History of indoor tanning
- Personal history of sunburns, starting in early life
- Personal or family history of skin cancer
- Skin that reddens, freckles, or burns easily
Of the risk factors, the only one you have any control over is sun exposure. That doesn’t mean you have to live your life in the dark. You can protect your skin and still spend time outside.
Start by wearing a broad spectrum, SPF 15 or higher sunscreen every day. This reduces your risk by a whopping 50 percent. If you plan to be outside for an extended time, apply sunscreen about 30 minutes before leaving and reapply every two hours.
Avoid the sun when it’s strongest, typically between 10 AM and 4 PM. Wear protective clothing, a broad-brimmed hat, sunglasses with UV protection, and carry an umbrella for portable shade.
Medicare and Your Skin
If you do not have symptoms, Medicare does not cover skin cancer screening. However, it does cover doctor visits initiated because you notice changes in your skin, such as the growth of a mole. It also covers skin cancer treatment, including diagnostics and inpatient care in a hospital or nursing facility.
If you have questions about your Medicare plan, call us toll-free at 855-350-8101 to speak to a licensed agent.
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