A Senior’s Guide to Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention

skin cancer prevention

Did you know that skin cancer is the most common cancer, not only in the United States but across the world? According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, one in five Americans develop skin cancer by the age of 70, and more than 9,500 people are diagnosed with it every day. Since skin cancer is so common, why is it not the focus of such intense research as other cancers, such as those of the colon or breast? That’s because, fortunately, early detection means an almost certain cure. For instance, melanoma has a 5-year survival rate of 99%[1].

Fortunately, detecting skin cancer is much easier than you might think. Prevention can be rather straightforward. Just as seniors may make wearing a medical alert pendant a common practice, taking steps to protect oneself from the sun can go a long way toward keeping skin cancer at bay. Here’s what you need to know about skin cancer.

A Few Skin Cancer Facts

Since skin cancer is so common, we know quite a bit about it. Here are some fast facts[2]:

·         In the United States, more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other cancers combined.

·         According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, more than one million Americans are living with melanoma right now.

·         If you’ve had five or more sunburns over the course of your lifetime, your risk of melanoma doubles.

·         Melanoma might be the type of skin cancer most people have heard of, but there are other types. In fact, in 2012, 3.3 million people in the United States were treated for non-melanoma skin cancer.

·         The American Cancer Society says 65 is the average age of diagnosis of melanoma.

·         Experts believe that 90% of skin aging is caused by sun exposure; those who use an SPF sunscreen every day show 24% less aging than those who don’t use sunscreen.

·         Though the cure rate for skin cancer is very high, unfortunately, about two people in the United States die of skin cancer every hour.

Different Types of Skin Cancer and How to Spot Them

There are three main types of skin cancer. These include[3]:

  • Basal cell carcinoma. More commonly found on the face, this type of cancer presents as a flesh-colored or brown lesion that might look like a scar, a waxy or pearly bump, or a sore that bleeds, scabs over, heals, and returns. 
  • Squamous cell carcinoma. This often shows up on areas that get sun exposure, such as your hands or face. It usually appears as a nodule that is firm and red, or a flat lesion with a crusty, scaly surface.
  • Melanoma. This can occur anywhere on the body. The signs of melanoma are much broader than that of other skin cancers and can include large brownish spots with dark freckles, small irregular lesions of a variety of colors, such as blue or pink, a painful lesion that might itch or burn, a mole that changes over time, or dark lesions anywhere on the body.

Melanoma often occurs where you might already have a mole; the mole changes over time and develops into cancer. University of California San Francisco offers the following “alphabet” advice for spotting melanoma:

·         Asymmetry: the border of the mole is not symmetrical

·         Border irregularity: the border of the mole might be ragged or notched

·         Color: there are multiple shades of black or brown in the mole

·         Diameter: it’s usually 6 millimeters or larger

·         Evolution: the mole changes over time.

According to the Mayo Clinic, though skin cancer most often develops on areas that have been exposed to the sun, it’s possible to develop melanoma in areas of the body that rarely see any sun at all, such as the genital area or even under your fingernails. In those with dark skin tones, melanoma is more likely to develop in those areas where the sun rarely hits, such as your palms or the soles of your feet.

Other types of skin cancer include[4]:

·         Merkel cell carcinoma, which is often found on the head, perhaps even in the hair follicles

·         Kaposi sarcoma, which often occurs in those who have weakened immune systems

·         Sebaceous gland carcinoma, which originates in the oil glands in the skin

Risk Factors for Skin Cancer

Though anyone can develop skin cancer, there are some factors that put you at higher risk. Some of these can be controlled – just as you try to reduce your fall risk with the use of medical alert technology, you can reduce your risk of skin cancer through prevention methods. We’ll talk about those in a moment. These factors might make you more prone to skin cancer[5]:

·         A history of sunburns. Only one blistering sunburn in childhood increases your risk of developing skin cancer as an adult.

·         Fair skin. The less pigmentation in your skin, the more likely your skin is to be damaged by UV light. It’s more common in those with blond or red hair and light-colored eyes.

·         Sun exposure. Those who spend a great deal of time in the sun, especially without sunscreen, or those who engage in indoor tanning are more likely to get skin cancer.

·         Moles. If you have several moles, your odds of developing melanoma increase.

·         Where you live. Those who live in higher elevations or sunny climates are exposed to more radiation from the sun.

·         Family and personal history. If someone in your family has skin cancer, or you’ve already had it, your odds of developing it increase.

·         Weak immune system. Those who have HIV or those taking immunosuppressant drugs are at greater risk.

·         Radiation exposure. Those who received radiation treatment at some point are more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma.

·         Exposure to substances. Some environmental toxins, such as arsenic, increase the risk.

·         Precancerous skin lesions. Some growths, such as rough scaly patches known as actinic keratoses, suggest that you might develop skin cancer.

Diagnosis and Treatment for Skin Cancer

Fortunately, a diagnosis of skin cancer can be rather easy for a dermatologist. The doctor will ask about existing moles and how they have changed. A physical examination will often uncover problematic areas that should be tested. Skin lesions can be tested with a biopsy.

In many cases, skin cancer will be limited to a very local area. This is often the case with basal cell carcinoma, which grows very slowly. It’s entirely possible to use liquid nitrogen, known as cryotherapy, to “freeze” the cancer and remove the cells. Surgery for skin cancer can be quite successful, as many of the cancers sit on the skin and don’t reach into the deeper layers. These surgeries are common procedures that can be performed on an outpatient basis.

In some cases, the skin cancer has become severe or moved around the body. In that case, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and radiation treatments might be necessary.

Prevention Measures to Keep Your Skin Healthy

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. You’re already aware of this when it comes to medical alert systems with fall detection, as that peace of mind alone can be a strong fall prevention measure in and of itself. When it comes to protecting yourself from skin cancer, the peace of mind can be just as strong if you do as the experts suggest.

Though spending time outside can be very good for you, it’s important to remember the power of the sun and what it can do. Most skin cancer is caused by the UV radiation that comes from the sun. That radiation can damage skin cells. The key is to get enough sunlight to give you the vitamin D you need, but not enough that it will damage your skin. Here are some tips from the CDC on how to get that balance:

·         Know when the sun is strongest in your area. In the United States, UV rays tend to be stronger in the midday or early afternoon. Look to the UV Index to determine what it is in your area; if it’s three or greater, protect your skin when you step outside.

·         Stay under the shade outside, such as beneath a tree or under a picnic shelter.

·         Wear a hat that shades your face, ears, and neck. Canvas is a great fabric for sun protection; straw hats are not.

·         The ideal clothing for sun protection is long-sleeved shirts and pants, though this is not always feasible – for instance, you probably wouldn’t wear that to the beach! A good compromise is a beach cover up.

·         Sunglasses can protect your eyes from exposure, as well as provide added protection for your face. Look for sunglasses that block UVA and UVB rays.

·         Wearing sunscreen might be the single most important way you can protect yourself from sun exposure. Look for a sunscreen of at least SPF 15; higher numbers are better. Put a thick layer of sunscreen on all exposed skin. Take sunscreen with you when you are out of the house, so you can reapply it after swimming or being out in the sun for more than a few hours.

·         Never use tanning beds, as the UV light is very direct.

·         Remember that UV rays can be reflected by sand, water, and even snow. It’s important to cover up and wear sunscreen even if you’re on a snowy mountaintop[6].

It’s also important to take precautions when you aren’t in the sun. Every month, examine your skin from head to toe, using a hand mirror to see in hard-to-reach places. Ask a family member or friend to look at areas you can’t see, such as your back. And at least once a year, see a dermatologist for a full examination[7].

Alert1 Medical Alert Systems wishes you a safe, happy, healthy summer!