Understanding Skin Cancer

Now that spring is here and summer is right around the corner, it’s time to start taking a tally of the sunburns you accumulated while enjoying the sunshine and warm weather last year. Hopefully, the score is zero, but if you’re like most guys, you probably have at least a point or two on the board for sun damage. Before you think a little color looks good or that men age more gracefully than women or even that you always fade to tan, consider that any overexposure to the sun ups your chances for skin cancer.

Skin cancer begins in the epidermis. This is the top layer of skin that is visible externally. Within this layer are three types of cells: squamous, basal and melanocytes. Squamous cells are the inner lining of the skin that goes between internal organs and muscles and the outer layers of skin. Basal cells are the generator cells that create new skin cells to heal wounds, replace old dead skin which flakes away and create additional skin as needed. Melanocytes, as their name hints at, produce melanin – the natural pigment of your skin, which also functions as a form of protection for your deeper skin structures.

Any of these skin cells can become cancerous, which means cells start to grow in an abnormal and potentially harmful manner. Although sun exposure, sun burns and having naturally fair skin are the leading causes of skin cancer, they are not the only risk factors. Moles, chemical exposure, a weakened immune system and age are all equally viable precursors to skin cancer. Once diagnosed, skin cancer occurs in three major forms, related to the types of cells it effects. Squamous cell carcinomas are rough scaly lesions that show up mainly on sun exposed areas. They can metastasize and carry a small risk of death. Basal cell carcinomas look like clear or waxy moles. They are shiny, flesh colored bumps that may bleed if pierced or scratched. It is rarely lethal, but the lesions are often like icebergs – the portion seen above the skin is small in comparison to the sub-skin-level portion. When surgically removed, large amounts of skin are typically lost. When these lesions show up on the face, this can be emotionally and physically scarring... and basal cell carcinomas have a tendency to show up in the same patients more than once. Melanomas are the skin cancers with the greatest lethal risk, which increases with the extent of invasion into healthy cells. These begin with mole-like, dark-colored spots on the skin which are signs that the melanocytes are malfunctioning. Because these lesions are often mistaken for moles, melanomas have a tendency to go unnoticed until they have reached a harmful stage.

If you suspect you may be at risk for skin cancer, begin visiting a dermatologist on a yearly basis. Even if you have a healthy diagnosis, your visit will help establish a baseline for comparison in the future. Your dermatologist can also advise you on ways to prevent skin cancer, including daily use of sun block, protective clothing and lifestyle habits that promote optimum skin health.

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