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Dec 17, 2008

Tell Me About A Skin cancer

Skin cancer is actually the most common of all human cancers in Western countries. A person likes to do a lot of gardening. Recently, noticed a suspicious-looking mole on skin which is growing bigger. Worried that it might be skin cancer ...!!! Is this a possibility?

Skin cancer is actually the most common of all human cancers in Western countries like the United States. It is not as common here as breast or lung cancer because although we are exposed to the sun, we have plenty of pigmentation in our skin compared to Caucasians to protect us.

This does not however mean we won’t get skin cancer, just that our incidence compared to other cancers is not as high.

There are three major types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are more common in older people while melanoma is more common in people from 25 to 29 years of age.

What does skin cancer look like?

Basal cell carcinoma is a raised, smooth bump on your skin which is usually exposed to sunlight, such as your neck and shoulders. It can be whitish pearl in colour. Sometimes it can bleed and the centre part can break off and form an ulcer.

Be very careful when you notice any skin lesions with small blood vessels on them! A lot of people think basal cell carcinoma is a normal sore which is taking a long time to heal. Therefore if you have such “sores”, you must always check them out with a dermatologist.

Squamous cell carcinoma looks like a red and scaling but well-defined and thickened patch – also on your sun-exposed skin areas. They can also bleed and form ulcers or large ugly masses.

Melanomas look like brown or black pigmented lesions – pretty much like a mole which has just changed (see below). It can be associated with pain, itching, bleeding or ulcers.

Do all moles progress to skin cancer?

No, definitely not. Skin cancers do start out however as precancerous lesions in your skin called “dysplasia”. You have to be very careful to look out for these as they can be arrested early before turning into cancer.

For example: Do look out for a patch of reddish brown rough, scaly skin. This is called actinic keratosis and it may develop into squamous cell carcinoma of the skin.

Do also look out for moles (also called naevus) which are abnormal. Although moles are very common and only very few become cancer, look out for those which have:

·Recently grown in size. Cancerous lesions are usually larger than 6mm in diameter.

·Recently changed in its margins or borders, or when one side of the mole doesn’t look like the other side (asymmetry).

·Recently changed colour.

·Recently become different from the rest of the moles on your body.

These moles can develop into melanoma over time.

I’ve heard that sunlight causes skin cancer. Is this true?

It is the ultraviolet rays of the light spectrum which causes skin cancer. It is important to know that ultraviolet rays do not only come from the sun but also from tanning machines and exposure to unusually high levels of x-rays from x-ray machines.

If your immune system is suppressed (such as if you have AIDS) and your body can’t protect itself or if you have a job that exposes you to certain chemicals and poisons like arsenic, hydrocarbons and oils, you may get skin cancer more easily. Occupations that may endanger you thus include being a farmer or miner.

Other than that, if you have the following, you are more likely to get skin cancer than other people:

·If you have fair skin, especially if you sunburn easily or get freckles.

·If you have a large number of moles and/or unusual moles.

·If you have blond or red hair and blue or green eyes (not applying to the majority of Malaysians, which is why our skin cancer incidence is relatively low)

·If you have had one severe sunburn early in your life.

·If you have family members who have had skin cancer (genetics).

·If you have skin disorders like albinism.

How can skin cancer be treated?

Treatment is usually by surgery for basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. However if the cancer has spread, like malignant melanoma usually does, then not only will you have to remove the offending lesion by surgery, but radiotherapy and chemotherapy might also be required.

How can I prevent skin cancer from happening to me? By not going out into the sun?

If you don’t go out into sunlight, then you’d get a whole host of other diseases, including vitamin D deficiency! No. You have to go about your life normally. But you can certainly reduce your exposure to the sun, such as by not going out in the scorching sun between 10am to 2 pm, applying sunblock with SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 and above when you do go out, wearing long sleeves and wide hats and by avoiding artificial tanning.

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