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Skin Cancer

What is Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. More than 90 percent of skin cancers are caused by sun exposure . Skin cancers are divided into two major groups: nonmelanoma and melanoma.

Nonmelanoma skin cancers (usually basal cell and squamous cell) are the most common cancers of the skin. Nonmelanoma skin cancer develops from all types of skin cells except melanocytes.

Melanoma is almost always curable in its early stages, but is likely to spread to other parts of the body when left untreated. Melanoma is much less common than basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers, but it is much more serious.

Facts: The number of new skin cancer cases and deaths from skin cancer are rising. The national mortality rate for melanoma has increased by 44 percent since 1973.

According to the Illinois State Cancer Registry, in 2008, about 1,900 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in Illinois. In 2008, about 360 deaths due to melanoma are expected in Illinois.

What are the Causes and Risk Factors of Skin Cancer?

Most basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers are caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation produced by the sun, but other risk factors also are linked to these skin cancers. Risk factors listed below can increase the risk for skin cancer.

Ultraviolet radiation: Too much exposure to UV radiation is a risk factor for skin cancer. The main source of such radiation is sunlight and tanning lamps and booths.

Race: People with fair skin, freckling or red or blond hair have a higher risk. The risk of skin cancer is much higher for whites than for dark-skinned African Americans.

Moles: Certain types of moles, including some large moles, increase the chance of getting melanoma.

Family history: People with a family history of skin cancer are at increased risk . A person who has already had melanoma is at a higher risk of getting another melanoma.

Exposure to chemicals: Exposure to large amounts of arsenic, a heavy metal used in making some insecticides, increases the risk of nonmelanoma skin cancer.

Radiation: Radiation treatment increases the risk of developing nonmelanoma skin cancer in the area that was treated.

Gender: Men are more likely to develop skin cancer than women.

Age: More than 50 percent of all melanomas occur in people older than 50 years of age.

What are the Symptoms of Skin Cancer?

Skin cancers often do not cause symptoms until they become quite large; then they can bleed or even hurt. Melanoma can occur anywhere on the body. It is important to know the difference between melanoma and a harmless mole.

The ABCD rule can help determine whether a mole is normal or a melanoma. If a mole has the following characteristics, it might be a melanoma:

A: asymmetry – one half of the mole does not match the other half.

B: border irregularity – the edges of the mole are ragged or notched.

C: color – the color of the mole is not the same all over. There may be shades of tan, brown, or black, and sometimes patches of red, blue or white.

D: diameter – the mole is wider than about one-fourth of an inch.

  • Nonmelanoma skin cancers are found on areas of skin exposed to sun.

  • Basal cell carcinomas often appear as flat, firm, pale areas or as small, raised, pink or red, translucent, shiny, waxy areas that may bleed after minor injury. Large ones may have oozing or crusted spots.

  • Squamous cell cancer may appear as growing lumps, often with a rough surface or as flat, reddish patches that grow slowly.

It is important to report any of these symptoms to a doctor.

How to Prevent Skin Cancer:

  • The best way to lower the risk of skin cancer is to avoid excessive exposure to the sun and other sources of UV radiation. Avoid being outdoors in sunlight for long periods, especially in the middle of the day when UV radiation is most intense.

  • Protect your skin with clothing, including a long-sleeved shirt and a hat with a broad brim.

  • Use sunscreen and lip balm with an SPF factor of at least 15. Put it on about 20 to 30 minutes before you go outside so your skin can absorb it and reapply every two hours.

  • Wear sunglasses/goggles (Wrap-around sunglasses with at least 99 percent UV absorption give the best protection).

  • Avoid other sources of UV light such as tanning beds and sun lamps.

  • Teach your children to protect themselves from the sun. People who suffer severe blistering sunburns particularly in childhood or teenage years are at increased risk of melanoma.

For more information:

American Cancer Society
Phone: 800-ACS-2345
TTY: 866-228-4327

National Cancer Institute
Phone: 800-4-CANCER
TTY: 800-332-8615

American Academy of Dermatology

Illinois Department of Public Health
Comprehensive Cancer Control Program
535 W. Jefferson St., Second Floor
Springfield, IL 62761
Phone: 217-782-3300
TTY 800-547-0466