Skin Cancer Myths
Don’t sleep on skin cancer
There are some cancers, like breast cancer for instance, that are well known and get huge media attention. However, skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. Doctors diagnose close to 10,000 people with skin cancer every day, with 1 in 5 possibly getting the disease by age 70.
The situation will worsen as the ozone levels are depleted and more solar UV radiation reaches the earth. However, since the primary cause of skin cancer continues to be recreational exposure to the sun and resultant sunburn, we can lessen our chances of developing the disease. We have the responsibility of protecting ourselves from the damaging rays of the sun and being knowledgeable about skin cancer.
Those are startling statistics. Yet, there are a few skin cancer myths that prevent many from giving it the seriousness and attention it deserves. Let’s debunk some of these issues.
What is Skin Cancer, exactly?
Before we start myth-busting, let’s get clear on what is skin cancer and the dangers it carries. Skin cancer happens when skin cells start growing rapidly and uncontrollably. Your skin has 3 layers: epidermis, dermis, and hypodermis. The epidermal bottom layer or basal layer creates new skin cells that move to the top layer. These cells also contain melanin, which multiplies to protect our skin from harsh sun exposure. Melanin is often called the body’s natural sunscreen. Sometimes, these cells can multiply uncontrollably, causing a tumor.
It is important to be able to differentiate among the types of cancer:
Basal cell carcinoma
Basal Cell Carcinoma is most common, but it grows slowly and rarely spreads to other parts of the body. However, if not treated, it can cause damage and disfigurement by invading surrounding tissue, dermis, and even growing into the nerves and bones.
Squamous cell carcinoma
This is the second most common type. It also grows slowly, but if left untreated, it is more likely than the basal cell to grow into deeper layers of skin and can spread to other body areas.
Merkel cell carcinoma
This very rare form of cancer kills, on average, 700 people a year. It is aggressive, growing fast and spreading quickly to other parts of the body. It needs to be detected and treated in its early stages.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. It is less common than basal cell and squamous, and more dangerous due to its ability to spread rapidly and more likely to spread to the lymph nodes or metastasize to other parts of the body. Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial.
Now it’s time to debunk some myths that can be dangerous if not taken seriously:
Myth #1: Skin Cancer is not deadly
So not true! Firstly, skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S. More than 2 people die of skin cancer every hour (Cancer Facts and Figures 2019). While dermatologists and other doctors treat many cases, some types like melanoma are fatal. Singer Bob Marley and Philadelphia Eagles coach Jim Johnson are probably the two most famous names to succumb to melanoma.
Skin Cancer Myth #2: People with dark skin don’t get skin cancer
Dangerously untrue! People with dark skin have a lower risk of skin cancer than light-skinned people, but they are certainly not immune to it. In fact, the death rates are higher, because it is diagnosed later when it is more advanced. The Skin Cancer Association has a survival rate of 60% for dark-skinned persons compared to 90% for light-skinned persons. Dark-skinned people do not get checked as often because of this misconception. Also, diagnosis is delayed because they tend to get skin cancer in unexpected places, such as on their nails, hands, and feet. Because of this, both they and their doctors do not immediately suspect skin cancer since it’s hard to notice.
Myth #3: People who tan easily do not get cancer
Tanning greatly increases your risk of developing skin cancer. An increase in the skin pigment, melanin, which you see as a tan, is a sign of damage. The more you tan, the more melanin is being produced to try to protect your skin from further damage, the darker the tan. And on and on. The source of skin cancer are these cells multiplying out of control. Every time your skin color changes due to exposure to the sun, the greater your risk of developing skin cancer.
Skin Cancer Myth #4: Children don’t get skin cancer
Granted, skin cancer is not common in children. At the present time in the U.S, there are about 300-420 new cases each year. Skin cancer accounts for 3% of all pediatric cancers. As with adults, children with light skin are at a higher risk. A history of sunburns makes a child more susceptible, as does a family history of melanoma. Treating early-stage melanoma is usually successful.
A concern is that the younger a child is exposed to the sun, the higher the risk of getting skin cancer later in life, particularly if the child has had blistering sunburns.
Myth #5: A tanning bed is safer than UV rays from the sun
Tanning beds are worse! They use unnatural levels of UV light that you are not exposed to in nature. The UVA radiation can be up to four times higher than that of the sun at noon. The UVB radiation almost twice at high. The use of a tanning bed before the age of 35 increases the risk of melanoma by 75%.
Skin Cancer Myth #6: Persons in colder climates are less likely to get skin cancer.
It’s true that some places don’t see the sun for most of the year. But that does not mean it’s harmful rays aren’t present. In fact, harmful UVB rays can pierce the cloudy skies and harm the skin, even in the winter. In fact, people who live at higher altitudes are at higher risk, even with year-round cloudy skies or long winter months. Even if you’re bundled up, exposed parts of the body can still get UV damage. Make sure to use a suitable SPF sunscreen year-round, regardless of climate.
Myth #7: Only UVB rays cause skin cancer
The sun gives off two main ultraviolet rays – UVA and UVB. There are other forms of ultraviolet light, for example, tanning beds, and black lights. Most of the UVB rays are absorbed by the ozone layer. But the rays that do come through are more dangerous and without sunscreen, can cause serious, long-term skin damage. UVB rays also contribute to more deadly forms of cancer like melanoma. But that doesn’t mean that UVA rays get off scot-free. UVA rays give us that immediate, golden tan. But these rays can penetrate the skin deeper than others and can even damage DNA. UVA rays have been proven to create some skin cancers. Take both forms seriously, using the right protective clothing and sunscreen at all times.
Did we get your attention?
Skin cancer must be taken seriously. If left untreated, the results can be deadly. To significantly reduce the chances of cancer, make sure to protect your skin. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen, making sure to reapply every two hours if exposed to the sun for long hours. Wear protective clothing and avoid tanning beds. Finally, make sure to check your family history for any skin cancer cases, as it could mean you are at higher risk.
How your dermatologist can help
If you are high risk, you should have a full-body skin examination at least once a year. If you see a new or changing spot, consult your dermatologist right away. Early detection gives you the best chance for a cure with the most minimal treatment.
At Eternal Dermatology, our lead physician is a top skin cancer specialist in the Columbia MD area. Speak with our team immediately to address any skin cancer concerns today.
Cosmetic Dermatology Specialist Columbia MD