Skin Cancer: Early Action Can Save Lives


It’s the kind of call you never want to get. My sister phoned to tell me her husband – my brother-in-law – had been diagnosed with Basal Cell Carcinoma on his nose and was going to need surgery.

Despite her constant nagging to have it checked out, he had ignored a small red-spot on his nose for three years that “came and went and came and went and was never sore,” according to him. He finally agreed to go to a dermatologist appointment that my sister made for him.

The news wasn’t good. The biopsy was positive for BCC and he was going to need both surgery to remove the cancer and plastic surgery for the extensive damage that was going to be done to his nose.

The procedure spanned a six-week period that included surgery by the dermatologist and four subsequent visits to the plastic surgeon. A flap of skin had to be taken from his forehead to aid the healing process resulting in a six-inch scar that ran from the bridge of his nose up and over his forehead.

It’s three months post-surgery and his nose is healing well but he reports no feeling in it, which may or may not come back. When asked what advice he had for others, my brother-in-law said, “As soon as you see something, go get it checked. The longer you wait the more drastic the surgery.”

I could hear my sister’s answer to that question over the phone in the background as she yelled, “Listen to your wife.”

Skin cancer is the country’s most common and rapidly growing type of cancer. There are more than 1 million new cases diagnosed each year, which is more than prostate, breast, lung, colon, uterus, ovaries and pancreas cancer combined.

Experts now estimate that 1 in 5 Americans will develop some form of skin cancer in their lifetime. The good news is that there is a lot you can do to avoid becoming a skin cancer statistic or fatality.

Prevention and early detection are the keys. The first step is to become familiar with the three main types of skin cancer. Basal Cell Carcinoma is the most common form responsible for 80 percent of all skin cancers. The other two are Squamous Cell Carcinoma at 15 percent and the deadly Melanoma weighing in at 5 percent.

Next, you need a basic understanding of Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation. There are two main types of UV radiation that reach the earth – UVA and UVB.

UVB radiation damages the DNA of the skin, which can set the stage for skin cancer. Recent research has found that UVA also contributes to skin cancer. There are no safe UV rays.

How do you protect yourself from UV rays? Here are some sun safety tips from the American Cancer Society:

  • Limit direct sun exposure during mid-day. UV rays are most intense between the hours of 10 AM and 4 PM. Plan activities out of the sun during these times.
  • Cover up. Wear protective clothing to protect as much skin as possible. Companies are now making clothing that blocks out 98 percent of UV rays. Look for the Skin Cancer Foundation’s seal of approval.
  • Wear a hat with at least a 2 to 3 inch brim. Traditional baseball caps do not protect the neck or the ears, where skin cancers commonly develop.
  • Use a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher and use it regularly and properly. The SPF rating only applies to UVB rays. Look for sunscreens that use terms like “full spectrum, broad spectrum or UVA protection.” Seek out products containing “titanium dioxide and zinc dioxide,” both of which are physical blockers that reflect the sun’s rays.
  • Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps. The FDA lists tanning beds as known carcinogens.

In a perfect world, skin cancer could be prevented. But since the majority of damage due to sun exposure is done early in life before people are aware of the dangers, the next best thing is detecting skin cancer as early as possible.

Finding possible cancers on your skin doesn’t require an x-ray or blood test. According to the ACS, all you need are your eyes and a mirror.

It is important to check your skin at least once a month. Self-examination is best done in a well-lit room in front of a full-length mirror using a hand-held mirror for areas that are hard to see.

Face the mirror and check your face, ears, neck, chest and belly. Women will need to lift their breast to check the skin underneath.

Check both sides of your arms and the tops and palms of your hands. Next, sit down and check both the front and back of your legs and the tops and bottoms of your feet.

Here’s what the ACS suggests you look for:

Basal Cell Carcinomas usually appear as a small, fleshy bump on sun-exposed areas like the head, neck, back and extremities. Occasionally, BCC presents itself as a flat, scaly patch or as a whitish scar-like change in the skin.

Squamous Cell Carcinomas express themselves as bumps or as red, scaly patches. They are typically found on the rim of the ear, face, lips and mouth.

Melanoma may appear suddenly without warning or it may begin in or near a mole or other dark spot in the skin. Determining if you need to seek medical attention for a mole is as easy as ABCDE.

  • A = Asymmetry. One half of the mole doesn’t match the other.
  • B = Border irregularity. The edges are ragged, notched or blurred.
  • C = Color. The pigmentation is not uniform.
  • D = Diameter. Most, but not all, melanomas are greater than 6 millimeters when diagnosed.
  • E = Evolving. Any changes in size, shape or color of a mole needs to be checked out.

If you are unfamiliar with what these skin cancers look like, you need to log on to the American Academy of Dermatology’s website at and click on “SPOT Skin Cancer” and educate yourself.

Being fair-skinned and having suffered numerous sunburns as a child, I don’t stop with self-examination. Every 6 months, I go to a dermatologist for a complete body exam.

When was the last time a dermatologist checked you for skin cancer?


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