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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Skin Cancer: Recognizing the Trouble Spots

- Asymmetry:
one half of the mole looks different than the other in shape, colour or texture.

- Borders: irregular borders, that is edges that are notched, blurred, or jagged.

- Colour that is uneven: most moles are shades of tan and browns. However, trouble moles may have grey, red, pink, blue or black and blue patches.

- Diameter: Melanomas can be small, but most are more than 6 millimetres or 1/4 inch in diameter — about the size of a pea or the eraser on your pencil.

- Evolving:
moles do go through harmless changes throughout our lives, but a change could signal trouble. If you spot changes, don’t panic — but do talk to your doctor.

What about non-melanoma skin cancers? Watch out for:

- A lump that is firm and red, or a lump that is small, smooth, waxy or shiny and pale.

- A lump or sore that bleeds or forms a crust or scab.

- A rough and scaly patch that may be red or brown in colour.

- A flat red spot that is rough, dry and scaly. The patch may itch, or hurt to touch.

However, if you do have any of these signs, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have skin cancer. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on your skin and talk to your doctor if you see any suspicious signs or changes.
Less risky — but not to be under estimated — are non-melanoma skin cancers. Two of the most common kinds include:

Basal cell carcinoma
(BCC) is a slow-growing tumour that starts in the cells at the base of our top layer of skin, the epidermis. BCC is the most common kind of skin cancer and often appears as a bump on the skin. While it doesn’t usually metastasize, it can affect surrounding tissues and cause disfigurement.

Squamous cell carcinoma
(SCC) also occurs in the epidermis but often appears as a scaly patch or sore that crusts over or bleeds. It’s the second most common type of skin cancer, and can spread in some cases.

Non-melanoma skin cancers are usually treated by dermatologists, and are often not noted in cancer statistics because they don’t usually involve hospital stays or complications. However, the Canadian Cancer Society forecasts 74,100 cases of non-melanoma skin cancers will be diagnosed in 2011.

Who is most at risk?

We’ve heard it before: experts consider UV ray exposure to be the top cause of most kinds of skin cancer whether it comes from the sun or a tanning bed. The more exposure you get, the higher the risk — especially if you’ve had severe sunburns in the past. Many skin cancers occur on parts of the skin that get regular exposure — like the back, face, arms and lower legs. People who are often outdoors or work outdoors have an increased risk.

What else should you consider?

- Complexion: people with light-coloured skin, hair and eyes are more likely to develop skin cancer. If you burn before you tan, you could be at higher risk.

- Age:
as with most cancers, the risk increases with age. Skin cancer is most likely to show up after age 40.

- Genetics:
if you have a family history of melanoma, you’re more likely to develop it — especially if you have atypical moles.

- Number of moles: more moles could mean a higher risk for melanoma, especially if you have more than 50 or have some large or atypical ones.

- Skin trauma: in some cases, scars, burns or exposure to radiation or chemicals can contribute to non-melanoma skin cancers — as can chronic inflammation of the skin.

- Weakened immune system due to an organ transplant, chemotherapy or an illness like lymphoma for HIV/AIDS could contribute to a type of skin cancer known as Kaposi’s sarcoma.

However, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security if you don’t have many of these risk factors. Anyone can develop skin cancer at any age. Likewise, people who have some of these risk factors won’t develop the disease.

Can we prevent it?
There are a lot of risks we can’t control, but we can tackle the most common one: sun and UV exposure. You know the drill: wear sunscreen (plenty of it, and re-applied often), skip the tanning beds and stay out of the sun from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Sunglasses, a hat and protective clothing are also a must.
However, be aware that your summer clothing may be too light to provide much coverage. Some sources recommend holding up the fabric to see how much light comes through — that’s how much sun is getting through to your skin. If you’re shopping for protective clothing, look for tightly-woven fabrics, dark colours and certain fabrics (light high-sheen polyester or unbleached cotton) that block more light.

Some clothing tags even list the item’s Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) — a measure that tells you how much of the sun’s UV rays reach your skin. Experts say to aim for a UPF of 50 or above: that means that means one 1/50th (or 2 per cent) of the sun’s UV radiation reaches your skin. (For more details, see the Skin Cancer Foundation’s advice on Protective Clothing.) Examine your body front and back in the mirror, then look at the right and left sides with your arms raised. Bend elbows and look carefully at forearms, upper underarms and palms. Look at the backs of your legs and feet, the spaces between your toes, and the soles of your feet. Examine the back of your neck and scalp with a hand mirror. Part hair for a closer look. Finally, check your back and buttocks with a hand mirror.

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