As one of the most common cancers in the United States, skin cancer will impact 1 in 5 Americans by the age of 70. That’s why it’s important to take care of your skin early with skin cancer prevention methods, such as wearing the appropriate SPF year-round and avoiding tanning beds.

Vishal Patel, MD, director of the Cutaneous Oncology Program at the George Washington University (GW) Cancer Center and the GW Medical Faculty Associates, breaks down what you need to know about skin cancer, how it is treated, and what you can do to protect yourself now.

Q: How common is skin cancer?

Patel: Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States and worldwide. By the age of 70, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer. It is estimated that approximately 9,500 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer every day, and more than two people die of skin cancer in the U.S. every hour. However, the vast majority of skin cancers are treatable. With early detection, the survival rate of all skin cancers is 99%.

Q: What are the different types of skin cancer? Are some types worse than others?

Patel: The three most common types of skin cancers are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Other rare skin cancers exist, but these three make up the vast majority of skin cancers that affect Americans. Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common form of skin cancer but with the best prognosis. Nearly all tumors are only locally destructive and are curable with surgery. Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common form of skin cancer. The vast majority of tumors have a good prognosis, but a small subset can lead to metastasis and death. Melanoma can also have a good prognosis if detected early but tumors can have a higher rate of poor outcomes, and thus early detection is critical. 

Q: What does skin cancer look like?

Patel: Skin cancer can have a wide variety of presentations. BCC and SCC can present as scaly, crusted, or bleeding bumps or sores that do not heal. They most often occur on the nose, forehead, ears, lower lip, hands, and other sun-exposed areas of the body. Melanoma typically presents as a changing mole or pigmented area. Moles that change in size, shape, or color, have irregular edges, are more than one color, are asymmetrical, or itch, ooze, or bleed should be evaluated for melanoma.

Q: How do I know if I have skin cancer?

Patel: A skin cancer can only be diagnosed by a skin biopsy. If you are concerned about a suspicious lesion, you should see a dermatologist who can evaluate the lesion and take a skin biopsy if needed.

Q: What does treatment of skin cancer look like?

Patel: Skin cancers are generally treated by surgical excision to remove the tumor and a surrounding margin of normal skin around the cancer. Occasionally, in advanced cases, treatment beyond surgery may be needed, such as removal of lymph node tissues or radiation therapy. Also, in certain early or superficial skin cancers, topical creams or immune therapies can be utilized. There are also a variety of treatments for prevention of skin cancer.

 The majority of skin cancers are caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. You may be exposed to dangerous radiation more often than you think. It can penetrate on cloudy days or through car or office windows, bounce off snow and water, and affect one on mild or even cold days. UV radiation also causes premature aging and discoloration. Sun exposure accumulates over time, so protecting yourself from prolonged exposure is key. This can be even during small exposures like running errands or walking your dog. Being sun smart is more than just when you are at the beach.

Some strategies include:

  • Minimizing outdoor activities between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Avoiding sunburn
  • Avoiding tanning and never using tanning beds
  • Using sun protective clothing, broad-brimmed hats, and sunglasses when engaging in outdoor activities
  • Using broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher regularly, and reapplying every two hours when in the sun

Read more at the GW Medical Faculty Associates.