Skin cancer is a disease of skin cells. Nine out of every ten cases are caused by UV rays from the sun or sunbeds. Over exposure to UV rays, which leads to tanning, redness or burning of the skin, causes damage to skin cells. While much of this damage is repaired some remains and can lead to skin cancer later in life.
Early detection is also vital. If spotted early up to 90% of cases are curable. In the case of melanoma skin cancer spotting it early can save your life. For this reason it is important to get to know your skin, check it every month for change and speak to your doctor if you are worried.
The skin is the largest organ in the body and is made up of two layers:
- The epidermis is the outer layer
- The dermis is the inner layer
Skin cancers are generally named after the cells in the skin where they grow. There are two main groups of skin cancer:
Non-melanoma skin cancers
These are the most common types of skin cancer and include basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas. They tend to grow in areas of the body that have been exposed to the sun and are more common in older people
Melanoma skin cancer
Melanoma is quite rare but greater numbers of people are being diagnosed with it each year. It is also a disease that affects young people. In 2011, of the 887 people in Ireland diagnosed with melanoma 190 were aged between 15 and 44 years.
Melanoma is one of the most serious forms of skin cancer but if spotted early, it is very treatable. If not, it can spread to other parts of the body and cause serious medical issues.
There are six different skin types. They range from white skin that burns and never tans to black skin. In this county three in every four people have skin types 1 or 2 which means their skin burns and does not tan or burns before it tans. This greatly increases their risk of skin cancer. However, even if your skin type is brown or black, which makes it less likely to burn, it can still receive enough UV damage to increase skin cancer risk.
Everyone who spends time outdoors is at risk of skin cancer, not just people who sunbathe. This includes people who work and play outdoors. However there are a few things that increase your risk even more. They include having:
- Pale or freckled skin that does not tan or burns before it tans
- Naturally red or fair hair
- Blue, green or grey eyes
- A large number of moles (50 or more)
- A history of sunburn
- Already had skin cancer
- A close family member who has or had skin cancer
- Ever used a sunbed
Many skin changes are harmless but if you do have skin cancer spotting it early could save your life. Start by getting to know what is normal for your skin. After that it will be easier to spot change. Aim to check it every month. You could also see your doctor each year for a skin exam.
A normal mole is usually an evenly coloured brown, tan or black spot on your skin. It can be either flat or raised and also round or oval. It is usually less than the size of the top of a pencil.
Moles can be there from birth or can appear during childhood or adolescence. Once a mole appears it will usually stay the same size, shape and colour for many years. It may fade away in older people. Most people have moles and almost all are harmless. But it is important to spot changes in a mole. These changes could be a sign the mole is becoming a melanoma.
Skin cancers do not all look the same. They can appear in a number of ways including any of the following:
- A small lump
- Flat, red spot
- Firm, red lump
- A lump or spot that is tender to touch
- An ulcer that will not heal
- A lump with a scaly or horny top
- Rough, scaly patches
- A new or changing mole
Non-melanoma often appears as one of the following:
- A new growth or sore that does not heal in a few weeks
- A spot or sore that continues to itch, hurt, crust, scab or bleed
- A skin ulcer not explained by other causes
Melanoma mainly develops from a new mole or a change to an existing mole. The changes to watch out in existing moles are:
- Change in shape:Change in size:
- From a round and regular shape to ragged
edges or an irregular shape with one half unlike the other
- From a round and regular shape to ragged
- From the size of the top of a pencil and
- Change in colour:
- From one colour to many shades of tan,
brown or other colours
- Some melanomas can also lose colour
- The mole looks red or inflamed around the
- The mole is bleeding, oozing or crusting
- The mole starts to feel different, for example,
slightly itchy or painful
As not all melanomas develop from moles it is important to speak to your doctor if you spot other skin changes that are unusual for you.
If you have difficulty checking your skin you could ask your doctor or a friend to check those hard to see places. You could also use two mirrors to check your entire body.
Self examination for melanoma
Check yourself regularly - remember, early detection and treatment offers an excellent chance of a cure.
Here are five steps to examine your skin yourself.
(Pictures below reprinted with permission from the American Academy of Dermatology. All rights reserved.)
If your doctor is suspicious of anything on your skin a sample may be taken and sent for testing. You may also be sent to a see a dermatologist who is a specialist in skin diseases. Treatment of skin cancer can include surgery, laser therapy, radiotherapy and photodynamic therapy. The dermatologist will speak to you about these treatments if necessary.