May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and the perfect time to review the most common types of skin cancer. We emphasize the importance of wearing sunscreen and having routine skin exams. Skin cancer is currently the most common cancer in the United States. In fact, it’s estimated that one out of every five people will get skin cancer at some point in their lifetime.
“Detecting skin cancer early is key, as that’s when it is the most treatable,” said Molly Smith, MD, dermatologist at Pariser Dermatology. “Our team looks for areas on the skin that are suspicious or have the potential to develop into cancer later on, such as irregular moles or worrisome, pink scaly spots.”
Common Types of Skin Cancers & When They Appear
Basal Cell Carcinoma
According to the American Cancer Society, basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer. Early detection and treatment of basal cell carcinomas is very important as they can be locally destructive. Patients who develop basal cell carcinomas are more susceptible to developing additional skin cancers in the future.
The best way to catch this type of skin cancer early is by regularly seeing a dermatologist, and keeping an eye on any worrisome areas of your skin. Risk factors may include excessively sun-damaged skin, repeated exposure to tanning beds and having original carcinomas larger than two centimeters.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Squamous Cell Carcinoma is most commonly found on areas of the skin that are exposed to sun, such as the head, neck, ears, lips and arms. While this cancer is generally easy to treat if caught early on, it can spread to nearby lymph nodes or bones if it’s undetected and left untreated.
Both basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas are more commonly found in people aged 50 and older, rather than those in their teenage years or twenties.
Melanoma is a less common type of skin cancer than the previous types mentioned. However, it is more likely to spread if left treated. Melanoma typically appears on the back and chest in men, and on the legs in women. This type of skin cancer is more prevalent in people with fair skin but can also develop in people with darker skin. Melanoma most often develops in areas that have had exposure to the sun, such as your back, legs, arms and face. It can also occur in areas that don’t receive much sun exposure, such as the soles of your feet, palms of your hands and fingernail beds.
What Does a Skin Exam Involve?
Ultimately, the best way to arm yourself against skin cancer is by wearing sunscreen sun-protective clothing and wide brimmed hats. Experienced dermatologists know the symptoms to watch out for, and the early warning signs of skin cancers so having a routine skin exam is recommended if you are at risk for developing skin cancer.
Prepare for a skin examination with these helpful tips:
- Don’t wear makeup – Your doctor must be able to see your skin clearly for the exam.
- Wear your hair down – This will help your doctor examine your scalp for any worrisome spots or moles.
- Remove any nail polish from fingers and toes – Your dermatologist will want to check under your fingernails and toenails during your examination.
- Come prepared – Your dermatologist may have a few questions about your amount of sun exposure, if you have a family history of skin cancer and if you have any areas of concern.
How Long Does an Annual Skin Check Take?
Every patient’s skin is different, and therefore the amount of time your examination will take may vary. Make sure you mention that you want a skin cancer screening when you book your appointment so that the provider allows enough time. Typically, a skin exam only takes 20 minutes. Most people don’t need them more than once a year.
Your first skin exam may take longer than follow up appointments. Your doctor will take time going through your skin history, and educating you on various ways to prevent skin cancers. You also may have more questions during your initial examination, which adds to the length of the appointment.
Skin Check with a Dermatologist
The most important things you can do to protect your skin are: wear a daily broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30+, keep an eye on your skin spots and see your dermatologist for a thorough skin cancer screening. Even just one exam can help prevent the spread of an early skin cancer.