Skin Cancer (Melanoma)

“Melanoma rates are now rising faster than for any other cancer in men and second only to lung cancer in women,” says Dr. Darrell Rigel, Associate Professor in the Department of Dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine.

There are three types of skin cancers: Basal Cell Cancer, Squamous Cell Cancer and Melanoma. First two are very common and can invade local tissues but are not fatal. Melanoma is not that common but can be fatal if not detected early and excised.

The death rate from melanoma continues to rise about two percent annually. Most skin cancers are due to exposure to sunlight and ultraviolet rays. So, this is a good time of the year to remind ourselves of the dangers of sunrays and ultraviolet radiation.

Skin is not only the largest organ of our body but has many important functions to protect us from environment Skin is constantly exposed to sun, wind, industrial elements and other causes of external and internal injury.

There are more than 25 human disorders that are either caused by or aggravated by exposure of the skin to sunlight.

Melanoma arises from cells called melanocytes. These cells contain melanin (melas = black) – a principal pigment responsible for the color of human skin, hair, and eyes. Melanin also acts as a filter to decrease the harmful effects of ultraviolet rays to the dermis.

When the skin is exposed to ultraviolet radiation, there is immediate increase in the number of melanocytes and production of melanin pigment. This results in tanning. The amount of melanin produced is genetically determined. That is why some people burn easily without tanning.

The risk of skin cancer is increased in individuals who spend too much time outdoors, children who have had episodic sunburn, and if there is a family or personal history of skin cancer (especially melanoma). Males are affected more than females.

Can we prevent skin cancer?

Yes! The Canadian Cancer Society recommends the following preventive measures:

1. Avoid prolonged exposure to the sun especially between 11:00 am and 4:00pm.

2. Wear protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts, and wide-brimmed hats.

3. Use a sunscreen with a SPF of 15 or higher to absorb ultraviolet rays.

4. For the nose or lips, use a sun block preparation containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide that will deflect ultraviolet rays.

5. Seek prompt treatment of any skin abnormality.

Skin cancer can be cured if detected early and appropriately treated. If a mole bleeds or is in a place where it gets irritated constantly; if there is a change in size, shape, and colour of a mole then it should be removed.

Prognosis for melanoma depends on the depth of the mole (deeper the mole worse the prognosis). Therefore, full thickness biopsy is important.

Konrad Adenauer, former Chancellor of the then West Germany once said, “A thick skin is a gift of God”. Let us put it this way: “A healthy skin is a gift of God; to be treated with respect and care”.

So have fun but be sun smart!

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