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What Is Skin Cancer?

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WHAT IS SKIN CANCER?
THE SKIN is the largest organ of the body. It has several important functions. It acts as a protective layer against injury and disease and also regulates our body temperature and maintains its hydration.

The skin consists of three layers:

  • The epidermis, or the outer layer
  • The dermis, or the inner layer
  • The subcutaneous fat layer
The epidermis is made up of cells that produce keratin, a substance that covers the outside of the skin and resists heat, cold and the effects of many chemicals. The cells in the epidermis also produce melanin, the substance that gives our skin its colour. Melanin is able to absorb ultraviolet light and provide some protection from its damaging effects.
What is cancer?

Cancer is a disease of the body's cells. Normally the body's cells grow and divide in an orderly manner so that growth and healing of injured tissues occurs.

Occasionally some cells may behave in an abnormal way and may grow into a lump which is called a tumour.

Tumours can be non-cancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant). Benign tumours do not spread to other parts of the body.

A malignant tumour is made up of cancer cells. These cells have the ability to spread beyond the original site and, if left untreated, may invade and destroy surrounding tissues. Sometimes cells break away from the original (primary) cancer and spread to other organs. When these cells reach a new site they may form another tumour often referred to as a secondary cancer or metastasis.

What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the basal layer of the epidermis. There are three main types of skin cancer in Australia: basal cell carcinoma; squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Melanomas start in the pigment cells (melanocytes) while basal and squamous cell carcinomas develop from the epidermal cells. (Carcinoma is a term used for some types of cancer).



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Basal Cell Skin Cancer. Size 6x7mm. As viewed on the MoleMAXâ„¢ computer.



Squamous Cell Skin Cancer. Size 4x3mm. As viewed on the MoleMAXâ„¢ computer.



Superficial Spreading Melanoma. Size 2x3mm. As viewed on the MoleMAXâ„¢ computer.

TYPES OF SKIN CANCER



  • Basal cell carcinoma


    Basal cell carcinomas are the most common but least dangerous type of skin cancer. They grow slowly over months to years but if left untreated, a deep (rodent) ulcer may form. Fortunately they very rarely spread to other parts of the body. If you have one basal cell carcinoma you may have others; either at the same time or in later years.

    Basal cell carcinomas are most commonly found on the face, neck and upper trunk. They appear as a lump or scaly area and are pale, pearly or red in colour. They may have blood vessels on the surface.
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma


    Squamous cell carcinomas are less common but more dangerous than basal cell carcinomas. They usually grow over a period of weeks to months. These cancers may spread to other parts of the body (metastasis) if not treated promptly.

    Squamous cell carcinomas appear on areas of skin most often exposed to the sun. They have scaling, red areas which may bleed easily and ulcerate, looking like an unhealing sore.
These common skin cancers generally occur in people over the age of 40. However, basal cell carcinoma can occur in younger adults. The major cause of these skin cancers is sun exposure over many years.

  • Melanoma


    Melanoma is the rarest but most dangerous skin cancer. It is often a fast growing cancer which if left untreated can spread quickly to other parts of the body to form secondary cancers or metastases.

    Melanomas can appear anywhere on the body, not only in areas that get a lot of sun. The first sign of a melanoma is usually a change in a freckle or mole, or the appearance of a new spot on normal skin. Changes are normally seen over a period of several weeks to months, not over several days. The changes are in size, shape or colour.

    Melanoma can occur from adolescence onwards and is most common between 30 and 50 years of age. In rare instances it may develop in children.
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DIAGNOSIS
How common is skin cancer?

Skin cancer rates in Australia are highest than anywhere else in the world. It is the most common form of cancer in Australia affecting all age groups from adolescents upwards. Most common is basal cell carcinoma which accounts for about 75% of all skin cancers. Squamous cell carcinoma accounts for 20% and melanoma less than 5%.

One out of two Australians will develop a skin cancer, usually a basal cell carcinoma. In South Australia the lifetime risk for developing a skin cancer is 1 in 33 for men and 1 in 36 for women.

Signs and Symptoms

As skin cancers are visible, they can be seen and checked as soon as they develop. Early symptoms of cancer may seem quite minor but any suspicious spot should be seen by a doctor immediately.

The signs to look for are:

  • A crusty, non-healing sore
  • A small lump which is red, pale or pearly in colour
  • A new spot, freckle or mole changing in colour, thickness or shape over a period of several weeks to months. Particular attention should be paid to spots that are dark brown to black, red or blue-black.
Diagnosis
If a doctor suspects a skin cancer, a biopsy may be performed. A biopsy is the removal of all or part of the affected skin generally under local anaesthetic. It is a simple procedure that can be done by your family doctor or you can be referred to a specialist. The piece of skin that has been removed is then examined under a microscope. However in many cases the whole tumour is removed and a specimen is then sent to the laboratory for diagnosis.

Outlook

Virtually all basal and squamous cell carcinomas that are found and treated early are cured.

The majority of people with early melanoma do not have any further trouble with their disease. However, because there is a chance that the melanoma will reappear, your doctor will examine you at regular intervals.

For further details on outlook you should speak to your own doctor who is familiar with your full medical history.

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WHAT CAUSES SKIN CANCER?
The major cause is exposure to the ultra-violet rays of the sun over many years.

  • Sunlight exposure


    Childhood exposure to the sun is an important factor in the development of skin cancer later in life. Research also suggests there may be a link between sunburn in childhood and melanoma in adulthood.
  • Occupation


    People who work outdoors have a greater risk of developing the common skin cancers than indoor workers. This is because of their greater exposure to sunlight. Workers in some industries have to take precautions against other known causes of common skin cancers, such as arsenic, polycyclic hydrocarbons and a number of other chemical compounds.
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WHO IS AT RISK?
Everyone is at risk of skin cancer although people with skin that burns easily and rarely tans are at the greatest risk. Those who burn in early summer and then tan are also at high risk if they do not protect their skin. Unprotected skin, whether tanned or not, is likely to be damaged by the skin and may develop skin cancer later in life.

  • Skin Type


    Skin cancer is seen most often in fair skinned people who have lived in Australia all their lives. It is most common in people of Celtic (Scottish, Irish and Welsh) background. However it also occurs in people whose parents migrated from Southern Europe e.g. Greece or Italy and who have themselves spent all or most of their lives in Australia. This is because the Australian sunlight is very harsh.
  • Existing Skin Damage


    Solar keratoses (sunspots) are dry, rough spots on the skin that are common in people over 40. They are not skin cancers but an indication that the skin has had enough sun exposure to develop skin cancer. People with keratoses should take particular care to protect their skin from the sun. They should also be examined to make sure a skin cancer is not present.
How can you reduce your risk?

  • Avoid the sun in the middle of the day as much as possible (11.00 am to 3.00 pm during daylight saving time).
  • Use shade.
  • Wear protective clothing - a wide brimmed hat and cover-up clothing.
  • Apply SPF 30+, broad spectrum sunscreen to skin which isn't covered by clothing.



 
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Great info Tony, and with summer approaching soon, many of us including myself love the beach, the pool, and the outdoors we tend to forget the damage the sun can do.. not to mention the tanning salons (everybody's gotta get that "BASE TAN" prior to going on vacations) How true !

But no matter how much you preach to these kids to stay out of these tanning salons -"they know better" ~ well, whatta ya gonna do, they'll learn the hard way, and in the long run... time will catch up to them real quick...

When I was in my teens (about 100 yrs ago) - I was on vacation in Puerto Rico, I thought I was invincible (dark olive complexion, sicilian background)I was all oiled up with baby oil/iodine mixture (remember that one???) I'll never burn...well, little did I know.(smart-ass)...I was in the sun for about 7 hrs. at the beach never realizing how strong the sun was down there...I was an inch short of sun-stroke...had 103 fever and blew up like a balloon that night...The hotel doctor had to come and give me a shot to bring down the fever.. They called it heat prostration-

Well, needless to say that was my first day, and last day of fun in the sun - for the next 10 days... I started to peel like a lizard - it was disgusting !! ugh.....

From that day on, I promised myself never to fry like that again ...since that time, when I do go to the beach, pool, etc...I have SPF 30 moisture on my face, along with full make-up which has sunblock in it., I always wear a visor and sunglasses, and I've been doing that now for about 33 yrs. now...

It has paid off, because my skin is in the best condition its been, I have no lines or wrinkles, (for a person my age) - and I'm just pleased with the appearance now, because I took care of it back then. Thanks for listening


 

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