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Understanding skin cancer

Understanding skin cancer

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S. and more than 3 million Americans will be diagnosed with it this year. This is a serious disease that can be life-threatening and affect people of all ages, races, and backgrounds. The good news is that skin cancer can be easily detected and is highly curable if caught early.

Who’s at risk?

Anyone can get skin cancer. But you are at greater risk if you have:

  • Fair skin, light-colored hair, or light-colored eyes
  • Many moles or abnormal moles on your skin
  • A history of sunburns from sunlight or tanning beds
  • A family history of skin cancer
  • A history of exposure to radiation or chemicals
  • A weakened immune system
  • If you have had skin cancer in the past, you are at risk for recurring skin cancer.

Spotting skin cancer

There are three kinds of skin cancer: melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma. You can find cancer early by checking your skin regularly.

So what are we looking for when examining the skin? We have an easy acronym to remember – here are the ABCDE’s of melanoma:

  • A – Asymmetry: One half does not match the other half
  • B – Border: The edges of the mole are ragged or irregular.
  • C – Color: The mole varies in color from one area to another. It may be shades of tan, brown, black, red, or other colors. It may also appear to have lost color in some areas.
  • D – Diameter: While melanomas are usually greater than 6mm (the size of a pencil eraser) when diagnosed, they can be smaller.
  • E – Evolving: A mole or skin lesion that is changing in size, shape, or color.

Other signs and symptoms that may be skin cancer include:

  • A mole or skin mark that itches or is sore.
  • A mole or skin mark that oozes bleeds, or becomes crusty.
  • A mole or skin mark that looks different from your other moles or skin marks.
  • A sore that doesn't heal.
  • A mole or sore becomes red or swells at its edges or beyond.

Preventing skin cancer

You can help prevent skin cancer. Start by avoiding the sun’s UV (ultraviolet) rays. And don’t use tanning beds or lamps. They are no safer than the sun. These precautions can help keep you from getting skin cancer. It can also help prevent wrinkles and other aging effects caused by the sun. Make sure your children also follow these safeguards.

Now is the time to start taking steps to prevent skin cancer:

  • Seek the shade – Try to stay inside or in the shade when the sun’s rays are the strongest, usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Wear clothes to cover up – Cover up as much skin as possible when heading outdoors, even if it means a light long-sleeved shirt and pants. A wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses can protect your face and eyes.
  • Use SPF 30 or higher sunscreen – Liberally apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least 30 SPF no less than 15 minutes before heading outside. Reapply sunscreen frequently, at least every two hours while you’re outside, and even more often if you’re swimming or sweating. A good amount to use is about 1 ounce (2 tablespoons).
  • Do not burn – One or more blistering sunburns as a child or teenager increases the risk of developing skin cancer as an adult. Sunburns in adulthood also are a risk factor.
  • Avoid tanning and UV tanning beds – A tan is the body’s response to injury from UV rays. A base tan does little to protect you from future damage to your skin caused by UV exposure. In fact, people who indoor tan are more likely to report getting sunburned.
  • Check your skin regularly – Take note of all the spots on your body (moles, freckles, age spots, etc.) on a monthly basis. You could even make this a fun monthly routine for you and your partner to bear all and check each other’s skin! Continue yearly skin exams with your physician in addition to self-exams.


If you or loved ones are concerned about an abnormal mole or lesion and want to learn more about skin cancer prevention, you are welcome to join us for a FREE Skin Cancer Screening & Prevention Event at University Medical Center on Wednesday, November 20, 5 - 7 p.m. in the Cancer Center. The screening is open to the public and you do not need to be a patient of University Medical Center to attend. Register for the screening here.