10 Dec Skin cancer: what you need to know
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer with around 5.4 million people diagnosed every year, according to the website Cancer.org. In a recent report, the World Health Organisation, reports that more than 132, 000 malignant melanomas occur globally every year. The incidence is rising and, what is even more worrying, is that it is on the increase in children. In the United States, the melanoma incidence for children rose by 84% from 1975 to 2005. The good news is that you can protect yourself against it and early diagnosis can save your life.
Skin cancer is divided into two categories: Melanoma and non-melanoma.
Non-melanoma is broken down into basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Basal cell carcinoma is rarely fatal and can be found on the neck and headand less commonly on the trunk and limbs. They are often nodular with a pearly appearance with fine blood vessels on the surface. Others are flat, red lesions with an ill-defined border. Squamous cell carcinoma is found more commonly in older patients. They can present as nodules, scaly lesions, ulcers or arise in chronic wounds. If you find any areas of skin which give you concern, you should consult your dermatologist or general practitioner immediately. They will be able to assess any suspicious patches of skin and will give you the support you need to either fix the problem or move to the next stage of diagnosis.
Melanoma is, of course, the big bad cousin of skin cancer. This is the cancer which needs you to pay attention to any changes in moles or new moles that appear (60% of melanomas arise as new moles) on the skin. Melanomas are often dark, but can be pink, they may be raised and have an irregular border and may bleed. If you find any mole or patch of skin which looks raised, nodular, weepy or black, see a dermatologist or general practitioner immediately. When it comes to melanoma it is far better to be safe than sorry.
Now, onto establishing the factors which put you at risk of skin cancer. There is good news here. Stay out of the sun. In South Africa we are a sun-loving, braai-having people, but we also have the second highest incidence of skin cancer in the world. We are only beaten by our other sun-loving cousins in Australia. It is no coincidence that both countries have a climate and culture that love the outdoors.
To limit the risk of getting skin cancer you need to apply sunscreen every time you head outdoors, and you must to re-apply it every two to three hours. Stay out of the sun in the heat of the day – 11am to 3pm – or at least try and minimise time spent outdoors, without shade, during this time. Wear a hat at all times, make sure it covers your neck, and wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.
There is no need to lock yourself indoors in case of skin cancer though, just aim for the shade and be smart about how you expose your skin to the sun.
“People with fair skin, freckles, moles, a genetic history of skin cancer or who are immunosuppressed are at higher risk, and should pay attention to any new suspicious lesions or changes in their skin throughout their life,” says Dr. Georgina McAdam, one of Cancercare’s oncologists at the Rondebosch Oncology Centre in Cape Town.
Dr. McAdam says it is important to see a dermatologist once a year, just to be on the safe side, and protect your skin all the time. “Black skin is also at risk of melanoma, even though it filters UV radiation more effectively and has better protection against the sun. I recommend that everyone wear a sunscreen of SPF30 at all times, SPF50 for paler skin, and that children always wear the right sunscreen designed for their sensitive skin.”
Check your body from top to toe every single month. Look for moles or changes in your skin, and ask your partner or a family member to look over your back for you. The same goes for your partner and children – look over their backs and bodies regularly to ensure that anything suspicious is caught immediately. No matter the colour of your skin, melanoma is deadly. Often, black skin hides a problem until it is too late so it can be even more of a risk. However, if you check, cover, protect and stay aware, you can avoid skin cancer, or have the problem dealt with before it is too late.