Measuring just a few millimeters at its thickest point, your skin is your body’s largest and heaviest organ. It plays an important role in regulating body temperature, preventing dehydration, relaying sensations (both painful and pleasurable) to the brain, and even producing hormones and enzymes critical to overall health.
And it does all that while being exposed to countless allergens, irritants, and most damaging of all, cancer-causing UV rays from the sun.
According to Dr. Richard Arenas of Baystate Surgical Oncology & Breast Specialists, skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S. “Almost 10,000 Americans are diagnosed with it daily,” he says, adding that 4.9 million adults are treated for it annually. “That breaks down to 1 in 5 Americans developing skin cancer before age 70. While that may sound terrifying, the good news is that if it’s caught early, it can be treated quite easily and successfully. But the key is understanding what causes skin cancer, what your risk factors are, and getting to a doctor when you notice changes to your skin.”
The hard truth about skin cancer and risk factors
No matter where you live on the planet or the season you’re experiencing, if you go outdoors, UV rays from the sun pose a risk to your skin.
“There’s really no escaping exposure to the sun,” says Arenas. “But that doesn’t mean you should live in fear of enjoying spending time outdoors. In fact, there are some actual benefits to spending time in the sun—it helps your body produce Vitamin D and helps stave off depression in the winter months, just to name two. But you do need to take a few precautions to protect your skin. That’s especially true if you have any of the widely recognized risk factors.”
These risk factors include:
- History of sunburns, including blistering and peeling
- Light complexion and eye color
- Family and personal history
- Suppressed immune system
- Chronic skin inflammation
Even if you don’t have any of these risk factors, it’s important to avoid overexposure. Arenas notes, “While your body can repair some damage in skin cells, it can’t repair all of it. The unrepaired damage builds up and has the potential to trigger the mutations that cause skin cancer.”
The consequences of overexposure
According to Arenas, UV exposure is a proven cause of certain types of skin cancer. He explains, “The surface of our skin is called the epidermis. It’s made up of three types of cells: basal, squamous, and melanocyte. UV rays can trigger abnormal growth in all these cell types. The type of cancer that develops is determined by the type of cell affected.”
Here’s a quick look at the three most common types of skin cancer:
Basal Cell Carcinoma
The most commonly diagnosed and treated type of skin cancer
- Usually occurs on sun exposed areas of the body
- Slow growing, rarely spreads
- If untreated, can cause deep ulcers
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Second most common skin cancer
- Commonly occurs in sun damaged skin but can occur in unexposed skin areas
- Usually locally invasive but can grow deep into the skin, causing damage and disfigurement.
- Can be aggressive in spread or metastasize in high-risk patients often preceded by actinic keratosis, a rough, scaly patch on the skin
The most serious skin cancer due to its ability to spread into the body
- The most common cancer in young adults (25-29)
- Frequently develops in a mole or suddenly appears as a new dark spot on the skin
- Can develop anywhere on the body including palm of the hands, soles of the feet, and in finger or toenail beds
Regardless of the type of cancer, Arenas notes that early detection is key. “Knowing what to look for makes it possible for anyone to detect cancer early when it’s easiest to cure, and before it can become disfiguring or, at worst, deadly.”