Living Well

Knowing your ABC’s is vital when it comes to skin cancer

Brian D. Lee, MD
Knowing your ABC’s is vital when it comes to skin cancer

What's the largest organ in the body? You may have answered the brain, stomach, or liver. However, it’s none of the above. The body’s largest organ is the human skin, which not only covers the entire body but performs many functions, such as regulating body temperature, preventing water loss, keeping bacteria at bay, and helping with the body’s production of Vitamin D. The skin is also exposed daily to ultraviolet rays, and if not protected, it can age prematurely, wrinkle, or worse, develop melanoma, or skin cancer. There are visual signs that something could be wrong, and remembering the signs is as simple as knowing your melanoma ABC’s:

Damage by the sun goes skin deep

When it comes to your skin, it goes much deeper than the eyes can see. There are three layers of skin on the body:

  • Epidermis: or the thin outer layer that you see
  • Dermis: a middle layer that contains many things, such as blood vessels, hair follicles and sweat glands
  • Subcutaneous fat layer: the deepest later that helps conserve the body’s heat and projects the body from injury

When outside, you are exposed to two different forms of ultraviolet light rays, UVA and UVB, and if you don’t adequately protect your skin, the rays can do enough damage to cause skin cancer. According to the latest statistics by federal health officials, melanoma of the skin impacts 22 out of every 100,000 people, the sixth most common form of cancer diagnosed yearly. Yet, if caught early, there is a better than 99% cure rate. Anyone can get skin cancer, especially if you are outdoors a lot and don’t take precautions from sun exposure, but there are some risk factors that you need to be aware of regardless of how much time you spend outside. Those at greater risk of getting melanoma include:

  • People with fair skin, light-colored hair, or light-colored eyes
  • Those with numerous moles or abnormal moles on your skin
  • A history of sunburns from sunlight or tanning beds
  • A personal history of a skin cancer diagnosis in the past or a family history of skin cancer
  • A history of exposure to radiation or chemicals

Knowing your risk is important, but equally as important is knowing how to protect your skin. The sun’s rays are most dangerous during the hours of 10 am – 4 pm, so it’s best if you can avoid increased exposure during those times. Regardless of the time of day, there are many steps you can take to protect your skin when outdoors:

  • Wear clothing that covers your arms and legs
  • Wear a wide-brim hat and sunglasses
  • Apply water-resistant sunscreen of at least SPF 30 on exposed skin and reapply every two hours or more if you are swimming
  • Find some shade
  • Avoid indoor tanning beds as users are exposed to high levels of UV rays

Getting a little sun exposure is healthy as it’s a natural way of your body producing Vitamin D,

but if you spend a lot of time outside, even on a cloudy day, you need to protect your skin, so it works properly to protect you.

Signs and symptoms of skin cancer

There are three kinds of skin cancer - melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma. Because there are different forms, you need to check your skin regularly because, like many diseases, skin cancer does exhibit symptoms. Melanomas are usually, but not always dark colored flat or raised patches that exhibit A-E criteria, described below.

Asymmetry: One half does not match the other half

Border: The edges of the mole are ragged or irregular.

Color: The mole varies in color from one area to another. It may be shades of tan, brown, black, red or other colors. It may also appear to have lost color in some areas.

Diameter: While melanomas are usually greater than 6mm (the size of a pencil eraser) when diagnosed, they can be smaller.

Evolving: A mole or skin lesion that is changing in size, shape or color.

With regard to basal and SCC one should be suspicious of any red, scaly flat or raised area that does not heal in the usual amount of time.

There is something proactive you can do if you have a mole or skin lesion or red scaling patches that won’t heal, and that is to get it checked. Talk to your primary care physician or your dermatologist if you have a concern. To make an appointment with a dermatologist at University Medical Center, call 504.702.3376.

Dr. Lee is a native of New Orleans and attended LSU School of Medicine. He is passionate about providing healthcare to our diverse population and mentoring students and residents on the field of dermatology. He has served as Chief of Dermatology at the New Orleans VA hospital for 25 years and is currently serving as both the LSU Residency Program Director and Kelly Stewart Chairman of the LSU Department of Dermatology.