Spotting Skin Cancer

UV exposure

It seems like we've been short on sunshine this spring and summer, but there have been some gorgeous days. Spending time in the sun is good for us- one recent study even found that time in the sun is associated with lower blood pressure- but it does increase the risk for skin cancer, and increase skin wrinkling. Here's a list different types of bad moles that can occur.

Actinic keratosis- These spots indicate that the skin is becoming damaged, but they are not cancerous. They are less than 1 cm in diameter, tan-brown, red or skin-colour, and have a rough texture. They are most commonly found on sun-exposed areas: face, arms, back of the hands. They can be removed using freezing or topical agents. Some actinic keratoses develop into carcinoma.

Squamous cell carcinoma- These cancerous moles are common in older people. They are more common in men than women. Those who are immune-suppressed are at higher risk. In their early stages, squamous cell carcinomas look like well-defined, scaly red plaques. Later on, they become lumpy and can ulcerate. Usually these carcinomas are discovered early on- less than 5% of them spread to other parts of the body.

Basal cell carcinoma- This is the most common type of cancer. It is slow-growing and rarely spreads. It tends to appear in sun-exposed areas, and is more common in lighter-skinned people. They look like pearly bumps, often with tiny blood vessels in and around them.

Melanoma- This is the most deadly type of skin cancer, and the incidence of it is on the rise. Intense bouts of exposure to sun in childhood is particularly harmful. People who have normal moles are at a higher risk. The most important sign of the disease is a change in the colour or size of a pigmented lesion. Itching can also be a sign. Melanomas have obvious variations in colour- they can be black, brown, red, dark blue, grey and I've even heard of a woman who had a melanoma that was white. The edges of a melanoma are irregular. Treatment must be sought as quickly as possible, as melanomas can develop very rapidly.

To protect yourself, use sunscreen and cover up. There is an excellent guide to everything you could ever want to know about sunscreen here.

It is also wise to know your own moles- where they are, what they look like, even the size of larger ones. Have someone help you with the places you can't see well. When assessing a mole, use this pneumonic to help:

A- Asymmetry- is the mole a nice round shape, or an irregular shape? Irregular shapes can indicate a cancerous mole.

B- Border – Is the border sharply defined or does the colour bleed into the surrounding skin? Normal moles usually have a sharply defined border.

C- Colour- does the mole have multiple colours in it, or just one? Multiple colours can be suspicious.

D- Diameter- The diameter should be less than 6 millimetres

E – Evolution – any changes in a mole should be investigated, as should the development of a new pigmented lesion in adulthood.

Have fun and enjoy the sun!