Health Features

Act Now To Prevent Skin Cancer

Most skin cancers are thought to be related to sun exposure, so everyone should make prevention a top priority throughout the year, but especially as we head into the summer months, says Washington University dermatologist and surgeon Dr. Kelly MacArthur. “Skin cancer develops as a result of the sun exposure your skin has seen several years previously,” she says. “Still, it’s never too late to begin protective practices to lower your risk.”

MacArthur says two of the most common skin cancer types are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Another more aggressive type is melanoma, which carries greater risk of metastasizing to tissues in other areas of the body. Still, if untreated, any skin cancer can invade deeper tissues and spread to structures like the lymph nodes, MacArthur says. “Early diagnosis is key for all skin cancers,” she explains. “Surgery can be curative for many that are found early and treated promptly.”

Any area of the body that is exposed to the sun frequently is at risk for developing skin cancers. MacArthur says family history is also an important consideration in assessing your likelihood of cancer. “Genetic conditions that increase risk of it are rare, but family history may be due to shared risk factors like similar skin type, sun exposure history, outdoor hobbies and photoprotective practices,” she notes. “Patients with fairer skin and lighter eyes are at higher risk of skin cancer, so it’s not surprising when a person with this skin type has family members who also develop it. Parents who enjoy boating or use tanning beds may teach their children these practices by example, thereby increasing skin cancer risk.”

Children need to be taught proper sun protection practices to reduce their likelihood of cancer, MacArthur notes. “Parents who are vigilant about preventive measures like using sunscreen and wearing protective hats and clothing are more likely to teach their children to be responsible about it,” she says.

“The key takeaway is to monitor any changes in your skin that last more than a few weeks and bring them to the attention of your dermatologist,” MacArthur advises. “There are innumerable skin lesions that are not cancerous, but a trained physician is needed to identify which are likely to be benign and which warrant a biopsy. A common recommendation for patients with moderate skin cancer risk is to be seen annually, and for those with prior history or higher risk, every three to six months may be advised.”

Here are some concerning characteristics to watch for:

  • The ABCDEs of melanoma self-detection: Asymmetrical shape, Border (irregular), Color (variable), Diameter (greater than 6 mm), Evolving shape
  • Pink or brown lesions that may signal basal cell or squamous cell cancers, or ‘amelanotic’ pink lesions that may be melanoma
  • Dark brown or black lesions that also may indicate melanoma
  • Symptoms like itching or bleeding from a lesion


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