A primer on skin cancer

In the past, I've written about how you can - and should - protect yourself from too much sun exposure. But if you readers are anything like my kids, well, God help you, first of all, but second, I'm sure many of you didn't take my message to heart and you subjected yourself to the pleasures of too much sun exposure anyway.

Well, if you did that and you got those perfect tans you dream of all winter, I'm sure some of you are now nervously checking yourselves to see if you've developed any skin changes.

So today, a primer on skin cancer.

First, there are 3 common types of skin cancer: squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, and the most feared, malignant melanoma (even the name sounds evil).

Squamous cell cancers usually present as slowly enlarging growths, patches, or ulcers on a sun-exposed part of the body. Basal cell cancers usually occur on the face or neck as small lumps that don't look like much (I've seen several that were long dismissed as "nothing"). Happily, both these types of cancer are generally slow-growing and not likely to spread, and although they must be treated (they are malignancies, after all), they do not usually require urgent attention.

That's not the case, however, with malignant melanomas because if you wait on one of these, the prognosis is grim, although if caught early, a malignant melanoma can be treated with minimally invasive surgery that can be done as an office procedure, and it tends to have a good prognosis.

Although some people are particularly prone to develop malignant melanomas (the fair-skinned, those with a family history of melanoma, those who suffered one or more severe sunburns as kids, those with multiple moles, even those with lots of freckles), it's important to stress that anyone can get a melanoma. For example, I have a 25-year-old seemingly low-risk friend recently diagnosed with one.

Malignant melanomas occur in melanocytes, the pigment-producing cells of the body, and thus can occur on any part of the body with pigment cells, even the eye (that ought to keep lots of you awake with fear tonight), although they tend to occur more commonly on sun-exposed areas.

How can you tell if you've developed a melanoma? Well, the truth is that it's often very difficult, (some melanomas, for example, have no color). The general rules, however, can be summarized this way: because malignant melanomas most often occur in a pre-existing mole, any change in a mole's color, shape, texture, size, or symptoms (new itching or bleeding, for example) should be checked by a doctor, as should any new growth that doesn't go away quickly. In fact, any skin changes that worry you should be seen by someone who knows what to do.

And finally, a reminder to check your skin often, and as my son likes to remind me, that can be done for you by a member of the opposite sex. At least that's what he said he and his girlfriend were doing for each other on the porch the other day.

Funny position to check the skin, though, if you ask me. And don't they know that it's the sun-exposed areas that need the most attention?

The contents of this health site are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition.

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